Saturday, July 7, 2018

2018 Western States

photo by Keshav Dahiya

How to finish Western States on just 17 miles a week training

“Personal trainers and coaches hate him! This 45-year-old man ran a sub-22-hours Western States on just 17 miles a week training using one simple trick! Click here to learn his secret!”

Sorry guys, there’s no shortcuts, gimmicks, or tricks. You can chug proprietary blends of pickle juice and apple cider vinegar. You can wear neon compression socks and breath-rite strips. You can run in sandals… or clown shoes with carbon-fiber springs hidden in them. You can attach electrodes to legs and shock yourself while watching Ginger Runner Live wearing your Altitude Mask. You can do all that nonsense. But it’s not going to do anything.

But here’s what you can do. You can bust your butt. You can make every workout count… no matter how pressed you are for time. You can sprint up hills like a psychopath. And then you can sprint down them even more psychotically. 

You can do push ups, sit ups, planks, and box jumps… in a sauna… on top of a ski resort at 8,000 feet elevation. And after you get out of the sauna, you can hop on your bike and do hill sprints until you puke. And then you can get back in the sauna.

World-renown ultra-runner, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, is famous for his catchphrase, “100 miles is not that far.” And I think we all agree… the guy is completely full of shit. One hundred miles is that far. It’s hella far. I can’t even drive that far without stopping to pee (yes, I have the bladder of a three-year old).

I got 99 problems, but ta a taper ain't one
photo by Vitor Rodrigues
And so, it was with some trepidation that I stood at the bottom of the ski slope at Squaw at the start of the 2018 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, looking up at the giant snow-capped mountain before me, hoping that my 17 miles a week training would be enough to see me through to the finish line in Auburn.

I’d intended to train for Western States. Really. It was on the top of my list of things to do – right along with picking up my dry cleaning and getting my car smog tested. But life gets in the way. Injuries, work trips, afternoon snuggles with my cat Lily. Suddenly Western States was just weeks away. And so I had to go all “plan B” on it.

My wife Amy joked that I’d probably put in the least training of anyone in Western States this year. I only ran 9 times in the entire month of May, for a total of 84 miles. Not 84 miles a week. Just 84 miles for the month. And nearly half of those miles came during a single run, a 100K race that I dropped out of at mile 37. So not necessarily the most promising build up.

Anyone following my training on Strava probably raised your eyebrows at my short runs ranging from 1.6 to 3.4 miles long with titles like, “Easing back into yogging”. But if you drilled into the details of those runs, you noticed something interesting: they were essentially all intervals workouts with bouts of really hard running… including 35 Strava CRs (course records).

Now granted, some of those Strava CRs are bullshit – obscure segments that I created myself. Like the off-trail, poison-oak covered, tick-infested scramble up the spine of Mt. Umunhum that only four nut-jobs have ever completed. Or the masochistic 10X repeat up the Winfield Cell Tower Hill that only a deeply troubled soul would even attempt.

But mixed in with cherry-picked bullshit are a few stout Strava records that I’m legitimately proud of… and that I had to bust my ass to obtain. The “rocky staircase climb” up Buena Vista trail in Quicksilver has been run hard by some fast dudes including local-legend Mike Helm, wunderkind Thomas Braun, and Italian ultra-running legend Riccardo Tortini. Yet, I am the only nutjob to ever average sub 9-minute pace up that ascent. 

But enough about how awesome I am. (Don’t worry, we’ll probably circle back to that again at some point).

Race bandit, 2Pac
How Do U Want It?

Standing in the predawn darkness at the starting line of Western States, close friend (and race bandit) 2Pac and I remind each other of our race plan: don’t do anything stupid. “If you feel you may be about to do something stupid, ask yourself this question,” Tupac suggests, “Is this a dumb-shit decision that I’m going to regret later? If yes… don’t do it.”

“No problem,” I think, “How hard can it be to not do anything stupid?” As it turns out… pretty fucking hard! You see, I have this thing where I have a problem letting anyone pass me. Especially if the person has a bit of a beer belly, or chunky legs. Or if they’re noticeably pregnant. Or old enough to be collecting social security. Or wearing basketball shorts?

“Fuck, I just got passed by a chick wearing basketball shorts!” I gasp. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” 2Pac chides, in his best Yoda impersonation. “But Pac, I’m wearing technologically-advanced, aerodynamic Ruhn Co compression shorts made from patent-pending space-age fabrics (I assume the same material that the space shuttle is coated with), and I just got passed by someone wearing Chris Webber’s old basketball shorts.”

“Don’t do anything stupid!” I silently chant to myself. “Don’t do anything stupid, fucker!” 2Pac loudly chimes in.  And so, I take my foot off the accelerator and watch as the woman in two-sizes-too-big basketball shorts sails effortless up the mountain, floating up towards the horizon like a hot air balloon.

“Johnny, I’ve got a something for you,” my buddy Vitor Rodrigues excitedly yells, waving a beer in my face as I crest the escarpment at the top of the climb. Instinctively my hand reached out to grab the can. Hmm, chugging a beer at 9,000 feet altitude just a few miles into the race probably qualifies as “something stupid.” And so sadly, I abstain.

Picture Me Rollin’

Everyone has a favorite aid station at Western States. Some people look forward to Michigan Bluff, where you can grab a popsicle after surviving the grueling climb out of the canyons. Others anticipate being able to see their families and crew at the spectator-friendly Foresthill school. For some it’s the ice-cold river crossing at Rucky Chucky, or the dance-club atmosphere of Brown’s Bar. 

For others it’s No-Hands-Bridge, with its promise of glory awaiting just four miles up the road at the finish line. Heck, I’m sure some people even enjoy the remote, low-frills aid stations along Cal Street, which 2Pac refers to as, “the shit-hole aid stations”. Just kidding Dardanelles, Peachstone, and Ford’s Bar – we love you guys too – even if you don’t have port-o-potties… or Hennessey.

My favorite aid station is, of course, Duncan Canyon at mile 24. And I don’t just say that because my running club (Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose) hosts it, and because I received my club’s automatic entry to Western States this year. I mean, even if I wasn’t contractually obligated to say Duncan Canyon is the best aid station, I would still rank it right up there – in the top fifteen or twenty for sure.

It’s always a party at Duncan Canyon. While aid-station captain Kristina Irvin quietly keeps things running smoothly behind the scenes, self-proclaimed “Loudest Man in Ultra Running” Greg Lanctot cranks up the atmosphere (and the amps) to 11 with his own eclectic – and sometimes indecipherable – antics. “Hey bro, do you dance?” he once famously yelled as he stepped in front of a dazed runner who just wanted to get his hydration bladder refilled.

Duncan Canyon aid station hall of fame
photo by Tonya Perme

In past years, Duncan Canyon has historically played up the Western/Rockabilly theme – with cowboy boots, hats, and buckles. This year however, we switched things up a bit with a Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame theme. As I run into the aid station, I legit laugh out loud as I weave past Prince-of-Darkness Ozzy Osbourne, Young-Skinny-Asian-Cowboy Elvis, and Non-Descript Aging Glam Rocker (who could be either Axl Rose or Bret Michaels… or just some random homeless dude from Truckee).

Acting a bit like a rockstar myself, I proceed to have a small meltdown when my crew hands me my new bottles which aren’t perfectly in line with my expectations (which I had never actually bothered to communicate to anyone). “Water? Lukewarm water! What the fuck am I supposed to do with warm water – cook some fucking Ramen noodles? Where’s my mother-fucking Grape Gu Roctane John Paul!” I scream at my ten-year-old son.

After much fuss, I eventually manage to sort thing out. I fill two large 24-ounce bottles with sports drink and put them in the front of my vest. I also grab a third bottle (handheld 21-ounce insulated bottle) and fill it with ice water for spraying on my head to combat the heat in the canyons. Finally, I have the aid station volunteers fill the large mesh pocket in the back of my pack with as much ice as possible. “Don’t skimp with the ice,” 2Pac shouts, “it’s so hot out here my gold chain is melting.”

After making a scene and berating my friends and family, I recompose myself and calmly trot out of the aid station. 2Pac flips everyone off on the way out, upset that we had to spend longer than planned in the aid station. With around 20 aid stations at Western States, if you spend even just 3 minutes in each aid station, you’ve suddenly added over an hour to your finishing time!

My one-man-crew, Peter "Russian Bear" Rabover
2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted

Who is Peter Rabover? I don’t actually know him that well, and I’m not even sure how we originally met. But for some reason, he keeps showing up at all my races and telling everyone that he’s my crew. “John, I’ve got your fresh bottles” he yells, holding up two bottles, as I run past with my already full bottles at Robinson Flat aid station.

“How about a foot massage?” he offers, making an enticing hand gesture. “I’m good. Thanks though…. Big Guy” I spit out, trying to remember his name.

All I really know about Peter is that he is apparently wanted by the law in Placer County resulting from a used-mattress-negotiation gone terribly wrong a few years back. Words were said. Mattresses were untied from car roofs and left on front lawns. It was a messy affair. It made all the papers.

“See you at the next aid station John,” Peter yells as I run off. “OK, I guess?” I shrug. “That’s my runner, John Burton,” Peter explains to the uninterested spectator next to him. “He likes Grape Gu Roctane, slightly diluted, with lots of ice in his bottles…”.

Impressed, I spin around and shout, “You just got yourself a job!” And so, I make a mental note to let my son John Paul know that his half-assed water-bottle refilling services will no longer be required.

Leaving Robinson Flat, 2Pac and I fall into a quiet rhythm. The hours fly by as we discuss everything from the socio-political influence of rap music on white suburban soccer moms, to who would win a fight between a robotic shark and a bionic panda bear. “What if the robot-shark was drunk, and the bionic Panda was high as fuck?” 2Pac asks. “Shit, that’s deep,” I sigh.

I’m still pondering the various possible outcomes of the hypothetically shark-panda cage fight when fellow Bay Area runner Franz Dill pulls up alongside me. “Sup white bread, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself…” 2Pac shouts. “Shhh,” I whisper, stuffing 2Pac out of sight down the front of my shorts.

Franz and I exchange pleasantries and jog along, chatting about white people stuff… like whether Mayonnaise or Creamy Dijon Mustard goes better on breakfast croissants. Finally, however, 2Pac can’t take it any longer and pokes his head out of my shorts infuriated. “Come on BJB, let’s bust a cap in this motherfucker’s ass.”

I turn and assure Franz that there won’t be any cap busting. “Not until mile 82 anyway. But if we see your punk ass at Green Gate, it’s on n****,” 2Pac shouts, making a vaguely-threatening gesture with his plastic fingers. Franz runs off head, looking equally concerned and perplexed.

Peter showing John Paul the lost art of bottle filling
California Love

After several hours alone with 2Pac in the 100-degree canyons, I’m happy to finally see everyone at Foresthill. As my son John Paul and my wife Amy hand me two new bottles, I nervously take a sip, hoping it’s not something bizarre like lukewarm pickle juice. But they nailed it this time – ice-cold Grape Gu Roctane.

“Ok guys, fill me in on what’s been going on all day!” I excitedly ask my pacer Loren Lewis and my newly-hired crew chief Peter as we trot down Cal Street. “Well, the investment fund that I manage doing well; we’re looking at 19.6% a year net after fees for 3 years with 25.6% gross…” Peter begins.

“And several people recognized me as ‘Toby’s Dad’ from the tattoo of my cat on my leg,” Loren interrupts excitedly.

“No fuckers, I mean what’s going on with the race? Who’s leading up front?” I ask. Silence. More silence. “Fuck. You’re both fired!” I sigh exasperatedly.

For the next nine hours Loren and I jog along in relative silence, punctuated only by an occasional cat anecdote. “Did I tell you about the time Toby…” Loren begins before I interrupt him. “Yes, you literally just told me that story two miles ago.” More silence.

After an awkward initial few miles where Loren bounds off head of me, sprinting out of sight while I slog behind mumbling profanities, Loren and I eventually come up with a system that works. Basically, it involves me trudging along slowly in front, cursing under my breath every time I kick a rock, while Loren jogs behind amusing himself.

“I spy with my little eye something green,” Loren chirps. “Let me guess... Is it more fucking poison oak?” I grumble, referring to the large branch of poison oak that just wacked me across the face. 

“Yep, how’d you guess?” Loren beams. “I guess the good news is that Western States didn’t raise entry fees this year,” he begins. “The bad news is that they saved that money by not doing any trail maintenance on this 18-mile-long section of poison oak.” 

“I can’t wait to get to the river!” I shout.

“You want to try and wash the poison oak off?” Loren asks.

“No, I just have to pee really bad but don’t want to stop. So, you might want to make sure you cross the river upstream from me!” I say, half-jokingly.

Loren wading through a "warm spot" in the river
photo by Faschino Photography
As we exit the river – me with a much lighter bladder than when I entered – I briefly pause to grab my headlamp from the one-and-only drop bag that I bothered to pack for the race (because as 2Pac rightly points out, “Mo’ drop bags equal mo’ problems").

Suddenly we see Peter sprinting down into the aid station, out of breath and drenched in sweat. “You doing hill repeats or something?” I inquire?

“No… I just slammed a beer!” Peter exclaims. 2Pac nods, apparently satisfied with the explanation, while Loren and I look at each other confused. Together, we all start making our way up the two-mile long climb from the river to Green Gate, with Peter eagerly filling us in what’s been going on.

“So, Sears is closing another twenty stores in a further sign of mounting problems…” Peter begins.

“Motherfucker! What’s going on with the race? Has Walmsley finished yet? Did he break the course record?” I scream.

“Oh yeah, he finished half an hour ago.” Peter says, checking his phone. “According to social media, he’s on his second margarita, and is enjoying some chips and guac.”

And so, I put my head down and resign myself to the painful reality that I’ve still got another six hours of yogging ahead of me before I can enjoy any Tex-Mex.

I Ain’t Mad At Cha

Due to the heat, my stomach has been running on auxiliary power all day, only able to process liquid calories. And so, aside from a handful of Honey Stinger gels, I’ve been fueling myself exclusively with Mountain Dew and gummy bears. Exhausted, overheated, and perhaps slightly delirious from the sugar, I begin to drift toward the dark side.

“Loren, are we still on pace for sub-24?” I ask, no longer able to do even basic mathematical operations in my head.

“Yeah man, we may even crack 22 hours if you keep this up. You’re moving steady. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You got this!” Loren assures me.

But I’m already in a dark place. Negative thoughts are creeping into my head. The weeds of despair are wrapping themselves around my ankles, trying to pull me into the forest of misery. (Never mind, that’s just poison oak.) If I don’t do something soon, my race could be over. And so, I draw on the one thing that I know can pull me out of this funk and reinvigorate me.

Duke Hong and his spirit animal Spot (Ed: What
kind of self-respecting man runs with a doll?)
“Do it for Duke Hong! Do it for Spot (the stuffed children’s toy that Duke talks to as if it is a real person... like a weirdo)” I tell myself. “Duke and Spot will probably never get into Western States. Do it for them.”

“Yeah, do it for the duke!” 2Pac shouts encouragingly.

“It’s just ‘Duke’. Not ‘the duke’” I correct 2Pac. “He’s not royalty. It’s not like he’s not marrying Prince Harry or something.”

For weeks leading up to Western States, Quicksilver teammate Duke Hong has been sending me daily messages asking if I’m planning to drop out of Western States so that he can have my spot. “John, looks like you had a rough run yesterday. You fell off the pace a bit there in the last mile. You should probably just drop out of States!” he advises.

“Fuck you Duke! You know Spot isn’t real, right. He’s a children’s toy. A doll, technically.” I would often find myself typing before 2Pac would talk me down.

“Fuck it. Let’s do it for the duke!” I shout. “Shit, I'm with you. I ain't mad at cha. Got nothing but love for ya. Do your thing boy.”

Gangsta Party

As Loren and I trudge up the last climb from No-Hands-Bridge toward Robie Point, the lights on the top of the hill start getting bigger and brighter. We’re getting closer. Suddenly I see two figures running toward us. “Hey, I recognize that goofy stride and exaggerated cross-body arm swing,” I exclaim as my son John Paul (who has inherited my ungainly stride mechanics) and my wife Amy greet us at the top of the climb.

Together, we all shuffle down through the neighborhood toward the finish line at the high school track. Several other runners (and their crews) are already on the track and it’s a bit of a clusterfuck. I don’t want to be the jackass dude who outsprints a woman in the finishing chute, but I don’t want to get caught by the guy coming up fast behind me either. Somehow things work out and nobody has to risk pulling a hamstring trying to sprint.

Amy, Loren, Peter, and 2Pac all peel off to the side as John Paul and I weave our way through the traffic on the track, trying to give ourselves a little space to experience the moment. I look up at the clock and see 21:53. Loren was right. Sub-22! Hell yeah.

Future Western States silver buckle winner?
photo by Faschino Photography

As John Paul and I cross the finish line together, I realize that it is the first time he has ever seen me finish a hundred-mile race. Hopefully it is a moment he will be able to look back on and fondly recall someday. I know I will.

As I lay on the infield next to the finish line, I close my eyes and try to pretend I don’t stink worse than a dead skunk baking in the sun on the side of the highway. My feet are throbbing with pain and I can’t wait to take my shoes off and throw them away.

“Who wants a beer?” 2Pac asks? “I’ve got Mickey’s. I’ve got St. Ides. I’ve got Colt 45!"

But I’m already asleep, dreaming of vanilla bubble baths and terry-cloth slippers. “Thug life,” I mumble softly. "Thug life...".

~ The end.


There are many other stories besides my own from this year’s race. Some of them inspiring. Some of them heartbreaking. One in particular has been weighing heavily on my mind. My Australian friend, Martin (Marty) Hack was hospitalized this year immediately after he finished Western States. His liver and kidneys had both shut down and he needed to be put on dialysis. His blood work revealed life-threateningly high levels of CPK (over 300,000), potassium, and creatine. His doctors told him that he was literally only seconds away from death. Thankfully Marty is one tough bastard and he pulled through after spending over a week in the hospital. Way to get that buckle... but please don't do that again :)

Shout outs and thank yous
  • Thank you to Quicksilver Running Club for the race entry!
  • Congrats to fellow Quicksilver teammates Bob Callahan and Nick Kunder on their finishes!
  • Gracias to Quicksilver teammate Loren Lewis for pacing me from Foresthill to Auburn. 
  • Kudos to my one-man-crew, Peter Rabover, for spending all day driving through the 100-degree mountains in a truck with no A/C just to make sure I didn't need anything. 
  • Special thanks to Ruhn Co clothing for keeping all my manly parts chafe-free.
Big congrats to Quicksilver teammate Nick Kunder who finished with six minutes to spare!

Results and Strava data

Slowly moved up from 73rd to 55th place with 21:53:21 silver-buckle finish

Stuff I used
  • New Balance Men's 10v4 Trail Shoe
  • Ruhn Co compression shorts
  • Ultimate Direction Anton Krupicka (AK) 2.0 race vest
  • Haglöfs three-quarter zip tee
  • Honey stinger gels
  • Gu Roctane sports drink

Friday, April 6, 2018

2018 Barkley Marathons Race Report

** If you have no idea what the Barkley "Marathons" is, read this first!**

Frozen Head freezes over!

“Come to the South,” they said. “Enjoy the weather. Try some barbeque.”

“Fuck dude, it’s snowing,” I yell to my buddy Peter as we pull into Frozen Head State Park, home of the Barkley Marathons, just days before the race. “That’s why I booked us a warm hotel room,” Peter chirps proudly. “With free HBO?” I inquire sarcastically. “With free HBO!” Peter beams. “And also, I brought edibles!” he adds. #FistBump

But, it was not yet time to let our minds wander to the many untold amenities awaiting us at the local Comfort Inn, which would undoubtedly include an all-you-can-eat sausage-patty breakfast buffet and make-your-own Belgian waffles. No, now was not the time for sausages. Now was the time for action!

Our plan was to get familiar with the park, and to scout out a few key sections of the race course. About 50% of the course is technically off trail, and hence off limits – except during the race. That means, except for race day, you’re not allowed to venture off trail. If you’re caught, you’ll receive a triple life-time ban from the race. And a fine. However, you are welcome to check out the sections of the course that use actual, official park-trails.

Having never been to the park before, I was eager to see some of the signature Barkley “attractions” such as: “the Pillars of Death,” “the Flume of Doom,” “Son-of-a-Bitch Ditch,” “Testicle Spectacle,” etc. Peter and I put on our mittens and headed up the mountain. When we arrived at the so-called “Pillars of Death,” I was deeply disappointed.

“Pillars of Death?” I scoffed as I easily walked across a series of stepping stones that were probably only three to four feet off the ground. I joked to Peter that they should instead be named “Pillars of Mild Inconvenience” or “Pillars of Possible Ankle Sprain.” For some reason, I suddenly laughed as I recalled a scene from the movie Spinal Tap where the band hilariously dances around a miniature replica of Stonehenge.

I continued to amuse myself by obnoxiously pointing out other dangerous obstacles such as the “Broken Twigs of Terror” and the “Three Small Pine-cones of Despair”. “Hey, watch out for the Acorn of Anguish,” I yelled to Peter. “This place is fraught with peril!” Yes, I’m an asshole. And yes, I was pretty sure Barkley would ultimately have the last laugh.

Big Johnny trying, quite unsuccessfully, to troll Laz
That time Laz nearly un-invited me for showing up in my underwear and a cape!

It was mighty nippily Friday evening as everyone congregated at camp in their puffy jackets for race registration. But, never one to let the possibility of penile frostbite get in the way of making a spectacle of myself, I sauntered up to the registration table in my superhero cape and star-spangled Speedo.

The race director, Laz, was not impressed. Despite my best efforts to troll him, he never once looked up as he processed my registration. Either he’s seen it all before, or he was perhaps thinking to himself, “God I hope this jackass actually tries to run in that outfit. The saw briers on the course are going to give new meaning to the phrase, Testicle Spectacle.”

I’d always heard that Laz has quite the sense of humor, so I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been able to coax a smile out of him, much less a reaction of any kind. But, in fairness, the man was wearing hunting cap that literally had the word “Geezer” embroidered on it. So, truth in advertising I guess.

But, at the end of registration Laz demonstrated that he does indeed have a sense of humor. He issued each runner an “emergency clicker” to be worn around our necks. Attached to a lanyard was a black metal device with a red panic button. The instructions on the side stated, “Barkley Marathons Emergency Clicker: In Case of Emergency Press Button”.

However, the button – and the entire device itself – was completely non-functional. It was all an elaborate setup to the punchline of a joke, as depicted on the official race tee-shirt that shows the skeletal remains of a Barkley runner sitting in the woods holding the clicker: “Help is not coming!” So yeah, funny guy.

Big Johnny shows off his... map?
Zoom in for full detail!
A map, a map, my kingdom for a map!

Unlike most other ultras, the Barkley course isn’t marked. Instead, runners – who are affectionately referred to as “morons” in Barkley parlance – are required to navigate the course using printed instructions, a compass, and a map copied by hand from a master map that Laz unveils hours before the race.

I was still rolling around in the backseat of my rental car, desperately trying to wriggle out of my two-sizes-too-tight Captain America Speedo when Laz brought out this year’s map. A huge crowd of runners – armed with pink highlighters – immediately swarmed the picnic table. I quickly threw on my pants and grabbed my art supplies. Time to get crafty!

Eventually I squeezed my way up to the table and got to work creating my cartographic masterpiece. In my rush to pack for the race, I’d only brought my small, travel-size, 96-count box of Crayola Crayons. So, unfortunately, I ended up having to use Unmellow Yellow and Razzle Dazzle Rose instead of Neon Carrot and Jazzberry Jam as I’d originally planned.

Fellow runner, Melody Hazi and I were still putting some final touches on our maps when it suddenly started raining. I was in the middle of calculating and jotting down compass bearings for key sections of the course. And by, “right in the middle of” I mean that I had only just begun. But I took the sudden rain as an omen that I should wrap things up, start waterproofing my (still unfinished) map with packaging tape, and get to bed.

As I was frantically trying to re-locate the lost packaging tape (that had fallen somewhere under the driver’s seat), my crew-chief Peter decided that now would be a great time to bombard me with a bunch of super-important questions like, what color socks do I plan to wear tomorrow, and whether I think I will want Mild, Hot, Fire, or Verde salsa with my tacos after loop one.

Several bursts of profanity later, I stuffed my half-completed, partially waterproofed map into a Ziploc bag and called it a night. Then I texted my wife Amy something upbeat and encouraging, along the lines of, “My map sucks donkey balls. I’m not sure I can even locate the restrooms with this thing. I’m so fucked. Good night!”

Michael Wardian showing me where NOT to go ;)

No sleep till Wartburg!

Lying awake in the back of the car listening to Peter snore in the front seat, I tossed and turned, not quite able to find an angle where the folded-down seats didn’t dig into my spine. Unable to calm my mind, and terrified of what tomorrow might bring, I did what anyone in my position would do. I began humming Neil Diamond’s greatest hits. Somewhere between “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and “Sweet Caroline” I finally managed to drift off to sleep.

I had half-expected Laz to blow the conch shell sometime in the wee hours of the night (to signal the start of the race), but I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up at 8 am and the race hadn’t started without me. Thus, I’d already achieved my first goal for the race, which was to not sleep through the start. Now I could focus on my next two goals: not getting lost before finding at least one book, and/or not being the first person to get “tapped out” by the bugle player.

As the race started, I tucked in behind Barkley veteran and previous “fun-run” finisher Jodi Isenor, with whom I’d been in email contact leading up to the race. Jodi was one of the pre-race favorites (along with Gary Robbins and Guillame Calmettes) who people thought had a legitimate shot at finishing the whole thing this year.

Everything went surprisingly smooth for the first few miles. I even managed to stay with the lead pack and reached book #1 on top of England Mountain together with the front runners. Woo hoo! But like a Twinkie that’s been stuffed in the small back-pocket of your running shorts and accidentally sat down upon one-too-many times, things quickly got very messy.

Suddenly we arrived at the “Flume of Doom” – a narrow crevice in a steep cliff wall only wide enough for one person to climb/slide/fall-down at a time. After watching Gary Robbins fail to properly slowdown in time and basically just plummet off the cliff (which he somehow miraculously managed to survive), I decided to descend slightly more deliberately. Exiting the bottom of the flume however, I found myself well behind the leaders. “Donkey farts!” I mumbled.

Barkley-veteran Marc "Eagle Pants" Laveson
randomly points at map during staged photo
This is easy. Too easy.

Although I’d lost sight of the leaders, I could still hear their voices. And, more importantly, I was downwind of them (and some of them were French). “Now is the time to harness your innate Native American tracking skills,” I told myself. “Just close your eyes and follow their scent.” Miraculously it worked, and I nailed the descent and arrived perfectly at book #2 at the river confluence in the Northwest corner of the park boundary just as the leaders were running off.

A few miles later I caught up to Jodi on the switchbacks towards Bald Knob. I was shocked to see him, as I had expected him to be up ahead with the leaders. But he mentioned that his legs were feeling strangely heavy. I decided to back off the pace a bit and stick with him, figuring it was wiser to hang with a veteran rather than to forge ahead on my own.

“Hey, is that Amelia Boone?” I yelled as I look back over my shoulder at two other runners (including Barkley veteran Johan Steene) quickly approaching from behind. “Yep, it’s me,” she confirmed. Amelia and I had spent some time together several weeks prior at another “Barkley-style” race in California that is even more underground and even more secretive than Barkley itself. It’s so secretive in fact, that I’m not even allowed to mention it by name. Let’s just call it “Skull Torrent.” But, I digress…

“Johnny, this way!” Amelia yelled. I looked back to see that Johan, Jodi, and Amelia had all turned off the trail and were headed up into the woods toward the summit of Bald Peak. “Fudge Nuggets!” I exclaimed. And with that I learnt my first Barkley lesson: never continue straight on a perfectly-good trail if there’s a steeper, shitier off-trail option. “Thanks Amelia,” I yelled as I gave Jodi the stink eye.

All was forgiven when we found book #3 on top of Bald Knob. We then dropped back down to the North Boundary Trail and continued making our way East along the park boundary. When we finally found book #4 at Garden Spot in the Northeast corner of the park, I was elated.

I was happy, of course, to have found another book; but I was even more excited about the fact that we’d just stepped across county lines, temporarily leaving alcohol-free Morgan County and entering Anderson County, where a red-blooded American can legally chug a beer in the woods if he sees fit. But alas, I had no beer to chug.

Mandatory race-issued watch
Walmart's finest $10 timepiece
Butt-slides and saw-briers

Just before the race, Laz announced that this year’s course should be faster than last year because he’d added four-hundred more feet of descent! Funny guy. As that also means – being a looped course with zero net-elevation gain – he’s essentially made the race harder by adding another 400-foot climb. And he put that climb at the bottom of a terrible section affectionately known as “Leonard’s Butt Slide.”

Jodi expertly lead us through Stallion Mountain – which is generally acknowledged to be the trickiest section of the course – without incident. And now it was time for some butt slidin’. I was stoked! In my head I was picturing a long, fun, amusement-park ride – like something from the movie Goonies.

So, I was bummed when instead, Leonard’s Butt Slide turned out to be just another steep-ass hill, laden with rocks, sticks, briers, and other unpleasantries. Also, we never did find One-Eyed-Willy’s lost pirate treasure. But I did find book #5, hidden under a big rock. So yay.

Finding the book gave me confidence. I was starting to feel like less of a noob. But then, sadly, I made an ass of myself by asking Amelia if she needed help lifting the rock to put the book away – temporarily forgetting that she’s a four-time Spartan Race World Champion who could probably pick up the rock and run all the way up the mountain with it if she wanted. #MyBad

Jodi continued leading the way and giving us a guided tour of the course. He was super helpful in pointing out things that might help us remember where to go on subsequent loops. He also made sure to periodically quiz us on our compass bearings (to see if we had drawn our maps properly). Amelia passed the tests with flying colors. I received a red-scribbled, “please see me after class” on my test.

Anyway, we found book #6 – in a hole in rock, on the top of a mountain. We found book #7 – in the hollow of a tree, next to another tree. And we found book #8 – in an old tire, next to a bunch of other old tires, next to a rusted oil drum. [Did you write all that down. Voila! Now you’re ready to run Barkley!]

Book #9 was probably one of the easiest books to find, but one of the hardest to get to. The book itself was just lying on a table next to a lookout tower. Lookout towers aren’t hard to find; you can generally just look straight up at the tallest peak and immediately spot them. It’s the actual hiking up the tallest peak that presents the challenge.

And while there is a perfectly good dirt road that gently winds its way up to the tower, Laz of course sends us up a different route. A much steeper, much muddier, much more heavily brier-infested route. Because, you know, Barkley.

Jodi, Johnny, and Amelia hiking up Rat Jaw.
Photo by Alfie Alcantara

The light at the end of the tunnel

The climb up to the tower sucked. It was so muddy that we could hardly stay on our feet – even with trekking poles. I looked over at one point and saw Amelia literally crawling up the mountain on all fours. I reached down into the mud and grabbed a downed cable (we’re hiking up Rat Jaw, which is a power-line cut) and used it to pull myself up the hill. Jodi, meanwhile, was off to the side, preferring to bushwhack through a patch of razor-sharp briers rather than dealing with the mud.

Eventually we reached the top and retrieved our respective book pages. Afraid that we might be too slow to keep up with Jodi on the muddy descent, Amelia and I took off right away to give ourselves a little head start while Jodi paused for a quick snack. As expected, he quickly caught back up to us and zoomed past. "Cheese whiz!"

And then it happened. Amelia took a nasty fall. “Corn Nuts! That looked painful,” I muttered to myself. Seconds later, I too went down in pretty much the exact same spot. “Tartar Sauce!” I mumbled. On the bright side, at least Amelia had pre-softened the landing for me.

But on the considerably-less-bright-side, Jodi was now suddenly out of sight. Looking down to our right, we spotted the prison – where we needed to be. Apparently, we’d overshot our mark. “Fudge berries!” I cursed. Correcting course, we shot down to the prison and crawled into a dark, wet, underground tunnel that ran the entire length of the abandoned (and purportedly haunted) prison complex.

Reminiscent of a scene from the Shawshank Redemption, Amelia and I squeezed through the bent metal bars and slipped into the dark tunnel. We could barely see our own feet as we tried to quickly-but-carefully wade through the ankle-deep water (or at least what we hoped was just water). Several hundred yards ahead, we briefly caught a fleeting glimpse of Jodi’s silhouette exiting against the bright sunlight.

Unbeknownst to Amelia and I, the ankle-deep surface we were running along was about to suddenly become knee-deep without warning. Boom, Amelia went down hard, headfirst, into the icy cold water. When she popped back up, she was soaking from head to toe. But hey, at least she wasn’t muddy anymore. #AlwaysLookOnTheBrightSideofLife

My awesome Ruhn Co., tights survived Rat Jaw!
James gets abducted by aliens?

Jodi was long gone when Amelia and I finally “escaped” from under the prison and grabbed book #10. We debated what to do. I suggested that we try to navigate on our own; head up Razor Ridge and make our way over to Indian Knob. Amelia – who was understandably reluctant to go off alone into the woods with a weirdo in a tight Speedo and super-hero cape – suggested we wait for Barkley veteran Johan Steene, who we saw climbing up Rat Jaw as we were descending.

We agreed to wait, which was a bit of a risky roll-of-the-dice for Amelia, who was still cold and soaking wet from her fall in the tunnel. If we stopped moving for too long, hypothermia could set in. Thankfully, after just a few minutes, we saw someone running down towards the prison. Except, it wasn’t Johan. It was another Barkley virgin, Scottish Terrier harrier, James Mace.

We waited for James at the water tower above the prison, and then the three of us proceeded up the mountain together. James is a strong navigator (and a strong runner), and we quickly reached the capstones (i.e., big rock-cliff thingies) on top of the mountain without incident. His navigation was spot on! However, once we reached Indian Knob we struggled to locate the actual book and ended up wandering around aimlessly, losing precious time. “Pot stickers!”

James double-checked his bearings; he was quite certain we were in the right spot. Amelia and I consulted the written instructions and decided to look a little further North. It was getting foggy and we were having a tough time seeing and communicating with each another. Suddenly, we couldn’t find James. We yelled loudly, repeatedly; but there was no response. “Shiitake mushrooms! He was just here!”

“What happened to James?” I’m not a believer in zombies, alien abductions, or things that go bump in the night. That said, I was starting to get a little creeped out. Unsure what else to do, we had to press on without him – hoping he wasn’t being probed and/or dissected by aliens.

Alien abduction in progress?
Photo by Deborah Brunswick

A few minutes later, Amelia and I successfully found book #11 in a narrow passageway in the rocks called “the eye of the needle.” Woo hoo. We did it! We were literally right in the middle of a little victory celebration when another runner stepped out of the fog and interrupted our spirited high-five with his forehead. Together the three of us dropped down the mountain to the Beech Fork river confluence where we found book #12 perfectly – perhaps too perfectly?

Remarkably, the other runner, also a Barkley virgin, seemed to intuitively know exactly where to find the book – even without ever pulling out his compass or map. Even more remarkably, he ran straight up to the tree that the book was hidden in, as if he’d been there before. Which of course he couldn’t have been, since as everyone knows it’s clearly against the rules to pre-scout the off-trail sections of the course before the race (even though the books are placed out days in advance).

Amelia and I grabbed our pages and headed up the mountain, excited to be on the last climb of the loop. Only one more book to go and we would definitely (well, almost-certainly) complete our first Barkley loop! We reached Chimney Top easily, but then struggled to locate the darn book. “Stupid rocks,” I mumbled as we walked around in circles, inspecting every cave, crack, and crevice. Eventually we did find the book – with a little help from two other runners.

As we headed back down the mountain towards camp, we were ecstatic to finally be back on real actual-to-goodness trails. No stupid saw briers. No muddy “butt slides”. No sharp punji sticks and rusty fence-wires hiding under leaves. Actual runnable trails! It was glorious.

Laz (left) and Peter "Russian Bear" (right)
Meet my semi-elite crew team – Peter Rabover and Marc Laveson

Amelia and I trotted into camp with bright lights on our heads and big smiles on our faces. We triumphantly handed our pages to Laz, who slowly counted them out, and then offered them back. Amelia immediately snatched hers and proclaimed that she was going to have them framed, or bronzed. I reluctantly took mine and made some wisecrack about using them as toilet paper on loop two.

As part of my extensive planning and meticulous preparations for Barkley, I’d reached out to dozens of potential candidates for my crew team including several former Army Rangers and Navy Seals, a retired four-star General, television-survivalist Bear Grylls, and some guy named Chris who works in the deli at Whole Foods. Unfortunately, none of them were available so I got stuck with my buddies Peter Rabover (who insisted on being called “Russian Bear”) and Marc Laveson (who I insisted on calling “Eagle Dick”).

Bear and Eagle were both still relatively sober and not-yet-completely-stoned out of their minds when I came in, hours later than expected, after my first loop. They’d pre-heated our rental car to a toasty, if not slightly suffocating, 2,000 degrees – for my comfort? I immediately began stripping off my clothes with one hand, while shoving tacos into my face with the other.

As I sat in the oppressively warm car, binge-eating tacos in my underwear, a wicked storm rolled into camp. Suddenly it started raining frogs and fish. I turned to Papa Bear and Eagle Pants (or whatever we are calling them), “Dudes, it’s gonna be miserable out there. What do you think I should wear on loop two? I like my trucker-hat because it accentuates my cheek bones. But the red stocking-cap goes well with my complexion...”

After a very spirited and exceptionally-detailed analysis of the various items of clothing I’d packed, we finally reached a consensus. As I waddled out of car wearing practically every garment I owned, I felt like the kid in the movie, A Christmas Story, whose mother swaddles him in so many layers that he can’t get up after he falls down in the snow. “I can’t move my arms!” I quipped.

John dressed for loop two
Two virgins alone the woods after dark

Dressed like a mummified sumo wrestler, I headed back “out there” with Amelia, ready to take on the night! Sadly, we immediately got off course in the first mile – and embarrassingly, it was on one of the actual signed park tails. Silly virgins!

Luckily, we caught our mistake and corrected course just in time to see two other runners – Eoin Keith and Maggie Guterl – coming down off the mountain into the campground at the end of their first loop. [Remember those two names, as you’ll likely hear them again in a couple paragraphs.]

You may recall earlier when I described learning my first lesson at Barkley (i.e., always take the steeper, shitier, off trail route if presented with two options). Now we were about to learn our second Barkley lesson: anything that is even remotely-easy during the light of day, can become nearly impossible in the dark-of-night, in the fog, when your fingers have gone numb from the cold.

Just an hour or two previously, Amelia and I had located book #13 at the end of loop one. Now, there we were again, looking for the exact same book again as we attempted to navigate the course in the reverse-direction. Except now the book wasn’t there. Or – more accurately – it was there, but we were apparently somewhere else.

As we wandered around… and around… and around, searching in vain for the book, the weather conditions continued to deteriorate. Not only was it raining, but now the fog was rolling in. Suddenly we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. Our headlamps became virtually useless, as all they did was reflect the fog in front of our faces and bounce the light back into our eyes.

Barkley "aid station"
After a few more superfluous laps around Chimney Top, Amelia and I decided to take shelter under a rock overhang and wait it out, hoping that other runners would soon come along (preferably before we froze to death). Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long.

“Hark! Rejoice, a pair of headlamps doth approach. Yonder cometh Maggie and Eoin!” I loudly proclaimed. Amelia, who was so excited to see her friend Maggie, completely ignored the fact that I’d suddenly started speaking as if we were at a Renaissance Faire.

“Ahoy, me Hearties! Ye're a sight fer sore eyes. We dunno where th' book be. We is fixin’ to walk th' plank. Arrgh!” I barked out at Maggie and Eoin, inexplicably switching from Ren-Faire to Pirate dialect.

Maggie and Eoin – who were oddly unfazed by running into a pirate-captain on top of a mountain in the forest Tennessee, nearly 600 miles from the nearest seaport – graciously invited us to tag along with them. Eoin quickly tracked down the missing book in just a matter of minutes. “Goodness gracious! Well, I declare. Heavens to Betsy. Come hug my neck.” I drawled.

Amelia and I were thrilled to have company – especially such good company! Eoin Keith is one of the UK’s top endurance athletes. He holds numerous FKTs, Irish national records, and course records including Britain’s Spine Race – one of the hardest races in the world. Maggie Guterl, aka “Maggatron” has finished in the top-10 at Western States, and has represented US at the IUA 24 Hour World Championships where she finished 4th, helping lead team USA to gold.

Don't worry. Help is not coming :)
Jamil Coury is in no hurry (has no worry?)

Eoin led our party over the hills and through the woods, impressively navigating through the rainstorm and dense fog. But somewhere on the way down to book #12 he took a hard fall and fractured his collar bone.

As I mention in my interview with journalist-historian-writer Sam Robinson, Eoin would take at least half-a-dozen more painful falls on the same broken shoulder – each time momentarily screaming out in agony before bouncing back to his feet and continuing onward.

We found book #12 at the confluence without too much trouble, but then we got a bit disoriented trying to choose the best line up Indian Knob. Part of the problem was that in addition to the previously existing rivers, there were now several new rivers that had sprung up due to the rain. It is amazing just how quickly – and how dramatically – a rain storm can alter topography.

After a few false starts we finally made our way up to Indian Knob. As we approached the summit we noticed a glowing light emanating from a cave. As we moved closer we could see the silhouette of an ancient shaman sitting cross-legged, deep in meditation.

“Oh wait, never mind, that’s Jamil Coury eating a burrito!” I exclaimed. Jamil explained that he’d spent several hours wandering around the cliffs in the rainstorm, unable to find the book alone in the dark and the fog.

"Jamil, is that you?"

But now, there were five of us. And everyone knows that five brains headlamps are better than one. “Go! Go! Power Rangers. It’s Morphin Time!” I shouted enthusiastically. Maggie shook her head. “Obviously, we’re Gandalf, Bilbo, Boromir, Legolas, and …”  [Dude, this race report is hilarious and all, but let’s start wrapping it up.]

Unable to reach a consensus as to which fictional team we wanted to be, we continued with the business at hand. It took a while, but we eventually found each of the remaining books as we successfully navigated loop two.

One of the major highlights of that second loop was wading through the tunnel underneath the prison at night. Whereas earlier in day the stream of water running through the tunnel had been relatively mild, by evening the rains had transformed the gentle brook into a raging class-3 white-water rapids.
If you haven’t already watched it, check out the crazy scene (starting from minute 16:50) in Jamil’s short 26-minute video.

Touching the gate :)
The Magnificent Five meets Reservoir Dogs

I’ve run in a few races with Jamil before, and I’ve watched many of his hilarious YouTube videos on Mountain Outpost and Run Steep Get High (my favorite of which is still probably the Pumpkin-Spice Latte Mile; though the Unicorn-Frappuccino Challenge is a close second). So, while I knew he was a funny guy, I never knew what an amazing person he is.

I can’t thank him enough for taking four Barkley virgins under his wing and giving us a personal guided tour of the course (potentially sacrificing his own race). I don’t know that I’ll ever get back to Barkley again (more on that in a minute), but if I ever do, I’ll certainly have a much better grasp of the course. That’s not to say it'll be any easier – because nothing about Barkley is easy. But hopefully it will be a teeny-weeny-bit less hard.

My mantra going into the Barkley was simple: “Refuse to refuse-to-continue.” Years before I’d read a Barkley race report where Laz listed the respective reasons why various runners had failed to complete the Barkley. Along with gems like, “spent the night at the Frozen Head Hilton (i.e., on the ground in the woods), the one that really caught my attention was, “refused to continue.” “Ouch,” I thought.

I didn’t want to be that guy. I vowed that if I ever got into Barkley I would, “time out, not tap out.” I’d rather have Laz mock me and say something like, “he got lost for days due to gross incompetence” or “he limped in after the cut-off with a clearly self-inflicted injury” than, “he refused to continue.”

As our motley five-person crew lumbered down the path back into camp, we were filled with a sense of accomplishment. We had refused to refuse-to-continue. We hadn’t quit. We knew that even though we’d collected all the required pages, we were way over the cut-off and our second loop wouldn’t count (and we wouldn’t be allowed to start a third loop). But that was fine.

Having a little too much fun!
Photo by Deborah Brunswick

As Laz poignantly remarked as we stood there at the gate smiling like idiots, “That second loop is for here (gestures to his heart) and for here (gestures to his head).” And he was right. We knew in our hearts and our heads what we had accomplished “out there”. We hadn’t completed the Barkley – and maybe we never will. But we fought, we fell, we got back up, we ate burritos, and we pressed onward!

Will I ever go back to Barkley? Do I even want to go back? And for that matter, will Laz even let me back in? These are good questions; and I don’t have the answers. I guess for now, all I can say is, I really hope so. I know I’m capable of so much more. The Barkley won this time. But if it wants a rematch… I welcome the fight!

That was easy(ish). He he.
Photo by Deborah Brunswick

Food, clothing, and equipment that I used at Barkley

  • Salomon Speed Cross 4 trail shoes
  • Ruhn Apparel Co., compression tights
  • Ruhn Apparel Co., compression long-sleeve base-layer
  • Montane Atomic waterproof pants
  • Marmot Minimalist Goretex jacket
  • Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles
  • Black Diamond Icon headlamp
  • UltrAspire Lighted Waistpack 
  • Naked Running Band
  • Honey Stinger Dark Chocolate Cherry Mocha protein bars
  • Honey Stinger Mango Orange gels

Other race reports, interviews, and videos!

Good luck!
Bonus: here’s how to apply for Barkley!!!

Now that I've been to Barkley, people are asking me to how to apply. Lots of people! Friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, UPS drivers, even that guy Chris who works in the deli at Whole Foods. Which is to be expected I suppose. So, although this might get me banned from Barkley for life, here are the super-secret details on how to get into Barkley:

Applying for Barkley is quite easily actually. But timing is everything. And unfortunately, the enrollment deadline for this fiscal period just expired. So, you’ll need to sit tight for a while. Check back with me during the next super blue blood moon, when Jupiter and Uranus are in alignment. Bring two chickens. And a Rod of Epic Splendor. Presto, you’re in. That was easy! Also, read this.

Friday, August 4, 2017

2017 Hardrock 100 Race Report

Hardrock 100: Wild and Tough
photo by John Burton
Henry Ford… the inventor of ultra running?

Henry Ford, the iconic American industrialist, is attributed with the rather elegant-sounding quote: “Failure is merely the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  But technically, that’s not what Henry Ford actually said. Let’s not forget, Henry Ford was essentially a glorified car mechanic, not an English professor or statesman.

What Ford actually penned was a bit more garbled and unwieldy: “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.” Which sounds like it was translated directly from High German… or Klingon maybe? But whatever. We still get the gist. Sort of anyway.

But why am I blabbering about Henry Ford in what is supposed to be a race report about the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run you might ask (quite rightly). Well… I’m sure that the idea of failure as chance to begin again more intelligently next time probably resonates with a lot of ultra runners, especially those who have gone out too hard in a race and paid the price with a DNF or long-slow shuffle to the finish.

But spoiler alert, unlike Henry Ford, I personally rarely ever learn from my failures. Rather, I see failure as an opportunity to fail again – perhaps even more spectacularly the next time. “It’s gonna work this time, I just know it,” is my motto. Well, that’s one of my mottoes anyway.

Some of my other mottoes include: “Go hard, take risks,” “Hammer now, worry later,” and “I’m sure this funny-smelling water leaking out of that rusty pipe is probably safe(ish) to drink”. I may even get that last one tattooed on my chest.

But I digress… let’s get back to the story of how, spoiler alert, I went out way too hard and blew up magnificently at the 2017 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run.

Hold my tailwind and watch this!

There I was… lumbering down the road with a painful grimace locked on my face, dead bugs in my teeth, dried drool plastered to my chin. As I reached up to wipe the sweat from my eyes, I could see Kilian Jornet just ahead, slowly coming back to me!

I was reeling him in! Spectators were screaming my name. Internet servers were crashing across the country as people (well, mainly my buddy Jeff) tweeted out pictures of me flying down the streets of Silverton. This was going to be it. My breakthrough race. My masterpiece!

I put my head down and started sprinting. The finish line was only a couple hundred yards away! Sadly though, the finish line (which also doubles as the start line) was behind me, as the race had only just begun moments ago. In fact, I hadn’t even run a quarter mile yet and I still had 100 miles to go. Shit, this was going to be a long day. But I trudged on.

I’d hatched a plan several days prior to the race. It was a bold, audacious plan. And, like most bold, audacious plans, it was conceived with the assistance of a fair amount of strong ale. I had spent the afternoon sampling various local Colorado craft brews including one beer that the label warned was, “insanely drinkable”. Several hours (and several insanely drinkable beers) later, I wrote four little words down on the back of a napkin: "Go hard, take risks!"

No socks, no shoes, no problems… for Kilian

The only other time I’d run Hardrock, back in 2014, I had finished in just over 30 hours, good enough for 12th place. That was the year I took a hard fall on a snowy mountain pass and shattered my finger tip into five pieces. That was also the year that my pacer Marc Laveson and I narrowly avoided getting struck by lightning – and perhaps more importantly, narrowly avoided having to spoon together for warmth. You can read all about it here

Back in 2014 I’d gone out relatively conservatively – a mistake I vowed not to repeat again. Having come off a great block of training this year, I was feeling fit and confident. Abundantly confident! Exceedingly confident. And slightly drunk.

My beer-inspired goal for this year’s race was simple: finish in the top 10 or die trying (preferably the former), and see how close I could run to 28 hours. Both goals were, admittedly, somewhat arbitrary. But as fellow runner Mike Wardian and I jokingly discussed on the flight home afterward, they don’t make ribbons for 11th place.

My plan going into the race was to hammer the first few blocks through town and try to get into the lead before we hit the trail to make sure I didn’t get stuck in a slow-moving conga line. Then, once I established my lead, I could prevent Kilian or anyone else from passing me on the narrow single-track by running with my elbows out wide.

 “Sounds like a reasonable plan,” you’re probably thinking. [Ed: Nope, not thinking that all. Sounds like a recipe for a shit-show soufflé!]. “Wait, who the fuck is this ‘Ed’ guy,” you are now likely wondering. I don’t know either, but he better check himself before he wrecks himself!

Anyway… I could feel that I was working a bit too hard on the single-track section, but I kept reminding myself that it was just three miles and that soon (once we crossed Arastra Creek) I would be comfortably power hiking up the mountain towards Dive’s Little Giant, smelling the wildflowers and oohing and ahhing at the views.

Kilian beat me with one arm tied behind his pack, and barefoot!
photo by Salomon

As the creek came into view I was surprised to see Kilian sitting on the ground on the far side of the creek re-tying his shoelace. “Double knots, dummy!” I almost yelled… until I realized that he had intentionally removed his socks and shoes and carried them across the river to avoid getting his socks wet.

“What’s he doing? He’s run this race before,” I thought to myself, “He should know there’s twenty creek crossings up ahead all along Pole Creek. No way he can keep his feet dry.” (I later read that Kilian says he’s not a morning person and that he likes to ease into the day. Apparently, he prefers to not get his socks wet before noon. Umm, Ok.)

Being the jackass I am, I did my best to “accidentally” splash Kilian as much as possible as I charged through the river, flailing my arms and legs wildly like an Ostrich trying to take flight. (Yes, I’m an asshole). After the river crossing, I settled into power-hiking mode and began the long four-mile climb up the mountain, my wet shoes squeaking and sloshing with each step. Seconds later Kilian pranced past me, probably sipping a demitasse of espresso and smiling like a man who still had warm dry socks. That fucker!

Don’t talk to me in the morning before I’ve had at least seven cups of coffee

It’s 6 am and I’ve only had a single cup of coffee. I’m half awake… and it’s not my good half. Some of the other runners are doing this weird thing where they look at me, move their mouths, and make strange sounds. I guess it’s called “talking”? But fuck that shit. I’m still grumpy as hell. Plus, we’re at well over 12,000 feet elevation and I’m not sure there’s enough oxygen to go around. So, I do this thing where I breath manically, glare at people, and wave my trekking poles menacingly.

Eventually the dirt road turns into single track and I suspect that I am approaching the top of the climb. Plus, there’s a bunch of excited spectators standing on the side of the trail screaming, “you’re almost at the top of the climb.”

As the trail flattens out at the top, I figure I should probably do a little jogging. You know, just in case somebody decides to take an unflattering pic of me walking (and possibly picking my nose) along what is clearly a very runnable section of trail.

And sure enough, just seconds later, after I pass a guy on his phone, I immediately hear the unmistakable “ding” of Facebook announcing that I’ve been tagged in a photo. Welcome to modern ultra running; I bet Gordy Ainsleigh never had to deal with this shit when he first ran Western States back in 1974.

The descent down from Dives Little Giant down to Cunningham Gulch was super steep and sketchy, and I immediately start regretting my shoe selection, having opted for comfort over traction by wearing my roomy New Balance rather than squeezing my giant sausage toes into my narrow Salomons.

Not to marginalize the struggles of my transgender friends, but I do occasionally joke that I’m actually an elite woman runner trapped in the body of a non-elite man. Which is just a comical way of saying that I often find myself running with the female front-runners (no doubt frustrating the film crews trying to document the women’s race and hoping that the random dude running directly between the 2nd and 3rd place woman will move the hell out of their shot).

While the lead woman, Caroline Chaverot (from France), was already well ahead of me, I also found myself getting passed on the descent by both Darcy Piceu and Nathalie Mauclair. Any hope I had of finishing on the women’s podium was about to go out the window. (Again with the joking). So, I picked up the pace and tucked in right behind the ladies, content to enjoy the stunning views (of the mountains, you pervs).

Paparazzi... at every river, on every mountain, behind every tree
photo by Patchanida Pongsubkarun

That time I got tired and sat down on a rock only 12 miles into the fucking race

At the bottom of the descent we crossed another small creek (where I presume Kilian again de-socked and de-shoed himself) right before the Cunningham Gulch aid station. As I pulled into the aid station I was happy to see my buddy Jeff Clowers, who was supporting me in a dual role as both “Crew Chief” and “Senior Vice President of Water Bottle Refilling.”

Jeff helped me fill up my stupid Salomon soft flasks. Unlike conventional hard-plastic water bottles that can easily be refilled with one hand, it takes at least three hands to properly grasp and fill those stupid soft flasks, which flop around and slip out of your hand – much like an over-lubed, semi-flaccid… umm, never mind.

Also, while I’m complaining. What’s with the super tiny narrow mouth openings on top of the Salomon flasks? Clearly they were designed by some European engineer who has never seen an actual American-size ice cube.

In what was to be just the first of numerous (innumerable?) mistakes I would make throughout the race, I quickly rushed through the aid station without taking on board many calories. For those of you unfamiliar with “calories”, they are these super helpful things that help you keep moving when you would otherwise want to just stop and sit down on a rock.

So, there I was, a few miles later, sitting on a rock catching my breath, trying to pretend I’d only stopped to take a quick picture (or two) of the mountains behind me. I was also pretending that I was having trouble choosing an Instagram filter. Keep in mind that I didn’t have an actual camera or phone; I was just holding my fingers up in the shape of the square and making fake shutter-clicking noises with my mouth.

Eventually I made it to the top of the climb up to Green Mountain and Buffalo Boy Ridge. “Green Mountain” is very aptly, if relatively unimaginatively, named. It’s a mountain. And it’s green. “Buffalo Boy Ridge” on the other hand, which is apparently named after the now abandoned Buffalo Boy Mine, is completely devoid of buffalo or boys. It does however have an abundance of rocks, some of which I managed to conveniently stub my toe on. But I trudged on.

Which Instagram filter to use, Lo-Fi or X-Pro-II?
Photo by

That time I spent several minutes screaming and rolling around on the ground

As we crested the mountain, now above the tree line and fully exposed in the mid-morning sun, I couldn’t help think about the fact that, at slightly over 13,000 feet, not only is there less oxygen in the air, but we were essentially several miles closer to the sun! At a distance of over 90 million miles, an extra mile or two probably don’t make any appreciable difference. But I was feeling hot just thinking about it!

After descending off the ridge and dropping down a bit in altitude, I immediately started feeling better. I picked up the pace on the descent down to Maggie Gulch aid station and caught back up to a couple runners who had passed me while I was having my make-pretend photo shoot on the rock.

Up in the distance ahead I could see a yellow shirt – which I presumed probably belonged to another runner (garments of clothing rarely run down mountains on their own). But I couldn’t tell whether it was the yellow shirt of Karl Meltzer or Nathalie Mauclair – which is not to say that Karl runs like a girl, or that Nathalie is built like man. [Oh Christ, I’m digging myself into a hole here.].

Anyway, I caught up to and chatted with the yellow shirt; it spoke decent English, albeit with a heavy French àccent. Further up ahead I could now see a red shirt. I wondered to myself which language it might speak?

I had been steadily gaining on the red shirt, when suddenly it disappeared; it was no longer anywhere on the trail. Then, by chance, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye on the ridge line above me. I looked up and saw a guy in a red shirt fifty feet above me. How the fuck did he get up there? And why the hell was I still down here? So many questions!

After backtracking, I discovered that I'd obliviously run past a group of three red flags tucked discretely off into the weeds. Even once I corrected course, the "trail" was still pretty hard to follow. I saw a flag above me on top of a steep hill. Well, I guess we go straight up?

Hardrock Pro Tip #1: One key differences between Hardrock and most other races is that at Hardrock you sometimes just randomly turn off a perfectly good trail and inexplicably start hiking off into the shrubs.

Having spent the last hour or so doing some pretty brisk running, my legs weren’t happy about the abrupt switch from running to power hiking. Suddenly my inner thigh seized up. I cried out in pain and frantically started grabbing at my cramping leg.

Just then, three other runners ran by on the trail below (including the yellow shirt of Nathalie Mauclair). They had apparently also missed the turn. They looked up and saw me yelling and thrashing frantically. “Oh look, he’s trying to alert us that we’ve strayed off course,” they probably thought, “What a gentleman.” I felt slightly embarrassed. But I trudged on.

It’s a beautiful day for… a hail storm?

My leg was still feeling “twitchy” as if it might cramp up again if I pushed too hard or took too big of a step. However, aside from the gimpy leg, I was otherwise feeling pretty damn good. So, I just tried to be careful and to focus on running as smoothly as possible.

Somewhere around Pole Creek I caught up with two more runners including, the red-shirted runner who unwittingly saved my race with his choice of such a bright-colored, highly-visible shirt. (What if he had worn green instead? Or desert camo? I probably would have run all the way into New Mexico before realizing I’d gone off course.)

Anyway, it turns out the red-shirted guy was Ted Mahon, a bad-ass mountaineer, skier, adventurer who has completed Hardrock eight times. Oh, and he’s climbed Mt. Everest too. I figured it would probably be a good idea to try to stick with him for a while.

I tucked in behind Ted and started following in his footsteps – quite literally. When he’d run, I’d run; when he’d hike, I’d hike. If he stepped in a puddle, I’d step in the same puddle. If he inadvertently kicked a rock, I’d purposely kick the same rock. If he looked up at the rain clouds and sighed, I too would look up and sigh. 

After a few minutes, I suspected that Ted might be getting a little annoyed (and/or freaked out) by having some weirdo running right behind him silently copying his every move.  I figured I should probably try to strike up a conversation. “So, who’s your favorite Pokémon?” was the first thing that popped out of my mouth. And yet, despite Ted’s blank stare, for some reason I dug in even deeper, “Most people like Tyranitaur because he looks like a complete bad ass, but I prefer Blissey because…”

An afternoon thunderstorm rolls in like clockwork
photo by

Thankfully, my blathering was interrupted by a loud crack of thunder as the rapidly darkening skies lit up with lightning. And then it immediately started to rain. “This is nice; I kind of like the rain,” I was saying when suddenly the rain abruptly transformed into hard, painful pellets of ice. Ping, ping, ping. “Ow, fuck, shit! Hail!” But I trudged on.

As both the velocity and the mass of the hail stones started to increase, the hail strikes themselves became increasingly less pleasant. I’ll resist the temptation to launch into lengthy discussion of Newtonian Mechanics, and instead just say that there’s a big difference between having a soft, mushy apple fall gently on your head from a tree, than having a frozen pellet of ice shot down from the Heavens strike you directly in the groin. “Nice dick shot God,” I laughed out in pain, “you really got me that time!”

The entire trail was covered in a blanket of white. Ted and I were both laughing at the absurdity of the situation as we descended from Cataract Lake down toward Sherman. Two grown men running down the mountain in a hail storm, whooping and hollering like carefree children (if carefree children cursed like drunken pirates).

I did my best to keep up with Ted but it was somewhat difficult (and impractical) trying to run with both hands securely covering my crotch to ward off any more divinely-guided, dick-seeking, hail-stones. As I stopped to dig my rain jacket out of my pack, I chuckled recalling that just a few miles ago I had been dunking my hat in the cold creek crossings to prevent from overheating; and now here I was I fumbling in my pack for my warm jacket.

Hardrock Pro Tip #2 Another big difference between Hardrock and most other races: at Hardrock, one minute you can be worrying about dying from dehydration or heat stroke; and a few minutes later you are suddenly worrying about drowning in a flooded river, getting struck by lightning, or freezing in a hail storm.

As Ted and I stumbled into the Sherman aid station (mile 28.8), completely soaked despite our supposedly “waterproof” jackets, I jokingly reached into my drop bag and asked him if he needed to borrow any of my sunblock. “No, I’m good. I have my own,” he dead-panned, reaching into his drop bag and pulling out an identical tube of the same sunblock. I wasn’t sure if he was oblivious to my poor attempt at humor, or if he genuinely planned to apply sunscreen in the middle of a raging storm.

I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the aid station and got a hug from fellow Quicksilver teammate Clare Abram (who was there crewing/pacing prolific East Bay runner Mark Tanaka for his first Hardrock). I was ready to leave the aid station, but Ted was still sitting down, changing into dry socks and shoes – even though it was still storming out.

“Hell, maybe he really is going to re-apply sunblock,” I mused to myself. Not wanting to lose too much time, or get too cold waiting around, I told Ted I was going head out the aid station together with another runner, three-time women’s Hardrock winner, Darcy Piceu (Africa). I figured Ted would catch back up to us; but if not, I was probably in equally good hands with Darcy. “Hey Darcy… who’s your favorite Pokémon?” No response.

Darcy didn’t seem very talkative. Maybe she was going through a rough spot. Or maybe she’s just not a Pokémon fan? In any case, I decided to run ahead. That’s when I saw a hand-made cardboard sign on the side of the road that said, “Rare Pokémon ahead”! I started sprinting up the road. I quickly caught up to Kirk Apt and then Anna “Frosty” Frost. “Have you guys seen any Pokémon?” I gasped as I sprinted past. No response. But I trudged on!

Taking on a short “dirt nap” (Handies Peak)

“Frosty” and I arrived into Burrows aid station (mile 32.6) together, but she only spent about 7 seconds in the aid station while I screwed around and was there for at least 13 and a half seconds, if not a full 14 seconds.  It took me a good two miles to catch back up!

About two-thirds of the way up the climb up Handies I started to feel like shit. I wasn’t sure if it was the altitude, or fatigue from pushing too hard earlier, or lack of calories, or maybe some combination thereof? But suddenly I found myself in a rough spot. My pace slowed to a crawl. I resorted to using a mental trick I like to call, “just make it to the next rock”. Each time I made it to a new rock, I would allow myself a few seconds to rest and catch my breath before proceeding on ahead to the next rock.

This well-known motivational technique of picking objects in the distance (like a sign post, or a tree, or a large rock) can be a very effective way of breaking large (seemingly incomprehensible) distances into more manageable bite-size chunks. In this case however, there was a rock every couple inches, so I ended up doing quite a bit of resting in between hiking from one rock to the next. During this section, both Ted and Frosty blew past me.

Once I made it to the top of Handies (at just over 14,000 feet), I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to go. I didn’t see any obvious trail, and Ted and Anna were both long gone. I decided the sensible thing to do would be to just lay down and die take a quick dirt nap and wait for another runner to come along. However, I was hoping it wouldn’t be too long as nine of my fingers had already gone numb from the cold (my right thumb was strangely fine).

A few minutes later Darcie Piceu came charging over the summit. And then she charged straight off the cliff side… to her death! Or so I assumed. But alas, thankfully there was a trail down there. Which I guess she probably knew. I gave her a thumbs up (with my non-frozen thumb) and tried to follow behind her.

Photo of a guy who looks a bit like me (but isn't actually me), Mike Foote
photo by Phillip Reiter

Excited to have found the trail again, I was looking forward to a long section of downhill running. However, much to my shock and horror, after not quite even two miles of downhill, I suddenly found myself hiking back uphill… in the snow! Apparently the “descent” down the backside of Handies into Grouse Gulch isn’t all downhill.

I’d forgotten about the tough 500 ft. climb up and over Grouse American Pass, which tops out at a bit over 13,000 feet. I had known this; But I’d forgotten. And thus, a lot of cursing ensured when I found myself hiking back uphill on what I assumed was going to be an all downhill section. But I trudged on!

Hardrock Pro Tip #3: At Hardrock even the “all downhill” sections still have some uphill. And lots of snow. Always with the fucking snow.

That “bonk” (or whatever it was) on the way up Handies shook my confidence. However, I started feeling better (at least physically) after dropping back down off Grouse American Pass once I got back down beneath 13,000 feet.

Coming into the race, I wasn’t anticipating having any problems with altitude. The altitude hadn’t bothered me when I did the race in 2014. Also, I’d recently spent week at altitude up at Lake Tahoe before I flew out to Hardrock; I’d felt pretty good on my runs between 8,000 and 10,000 feet at Tahoe. Plus, I’d been using my Hypoxico altitude tent (on the maximum setting of exactly 13,000 ft.) for a couple hours each day for the past few months.

But in retrospect, it may not be a coincidence my altitude tent tops out at 13,000 feet, and that I seemed to struggle whenever I climbed up above 13,000. Next time I think I will invest in the optional “high-altitude adapter” that boosts range of the tent up from 13,000 to 21,000 feet!

As I dropped down towards the Grouse Gulch aid station, I was looking forward to seeing my crew (Jeff) who I hadn’t seen in over nine hours since Cunningham at mile 9. I was also stoked to be picking up my pacer, Marc Laveson, who’d been instrumental in my first finish at Hardrock in 2014.

Super pacer, Marc Laveson, to the rescue

In our text exchanges leading up to the race Marc had expressed great excitement, at one point exclaiming, “I hope we get struck by lightning this year!”. While I appreciated his enthusiasm, I was leaning more towards not getting struck by lightning. I suggested that Marc should run with a long steel rod sticking out of his hydration pack in order to draw the lightning away from me. And maybe tie a kite (with a set of keys) to the end of the pole for good measure!

Sadly, we I came running into the Grouse Gulch aid station (mile 42.2), Marc was wearing neither lightning rod nor kite! He mumbled something about, “dumb TSA carry-on policies”. Whatever.

I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I was still sulking about my meltdown on Handies. But my Crew Chief (and Senior Vice President of Water-Bottle Refilling), Jeff Clowers, was there… with Mountain Dew! But, for reasons that are still unclear to me, he asked (with a straight face) whether I wanted ice-cold Mountain Dew or lukewarm Mountain Dew.

I inquired, quite sarcastically, whether the lukewarm Mountain Dew would be served with, or without, dead flies? Also, I immediately demoted Jeff, on the spot, from “Senior VP of Water Bottle Refilling” down to “Interim Assistant Manager of Water-Bottle Refilling”. Who the fuck drinks lukewarm Mountain Dew???? That’s not even a real thing!

I chugged a couple gallons of (ice-cold) Mountain Dew. And then, stoned out of my mind on caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup, I set off with Marc toward Engineer Pass – ready to conquer the world! Five minutes I was laying on the side of the trail convulsing.  

Sensing that I was crashing from my sugar high and perhaps on the verge of resorting to turning tricks for Skittles, Marc distracted me by sharing some news of the day:
  • Last year’s co-champion Jason Schlarb had dropped out at the first aid station only 10 miles into the race! 
  • Last-year’s other co-champion, Kilian Jornet, had fallen and dislocated his shoulder! But he’d apparently fashioned a makeshift sling out of some duct tape and his hydration vest, and he was now back in the lead.
  • Women’s leader Caroline Cheverot had gone out ridiculously hard, ahead of most of the men, and was pace to shatter the women’s course record – barring any catastrophe.
  • Joe Grant’s mother had been caught (on camera) screaming at Joe that he better not lose to a girl… or something about not being able to come home for Thanksgiving.
Pacer, Marc Laveson, fills me on the news and gossip of the day.
photo by Jeff Clowers (Crew Chief and Senior Vice President of Water-Bottle Refilling)

Lifted by Marc’s tales of other people’s woes suffering, I suddenly felt reinvigorated! A few hundred yards ahead in the distance I could make out the distinctive blue skort of Anna Frost. I put my head down and “ratcheted” up the pace.

Thus began, what was essentially the world’s greatest slow-motion chase! Every few miles Marc would excitedly exclaim, “I think we made up another inch, maybe two!” Each time I would respond with an enthusiastic (though quite sarcastic) thumbs up. But I trudged on.

As Marc and I crested the top of the climb, Anna was nowhere to be seen. Alarm bells went off in my head. Looking around I spotted another one of those turns where we suddenly veer off the trail and jump down off the side of a cliff. Thankfully this time I had been on the lookout for those little flags hidden in the weeds. As George W. Bush once remarked, “Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can't get fooled again!”. And I did not get fooled again!

We ran down to the Engineer aid station (mile 48.7) where I pretended to eat (but did not actually eat) some food. My stomach was still feeling nauseous (And my leg was still feeling “twitchy”.) But, my thumb had finally thawed out. So, you know, focus on the positives I guess!

Having basically just spent the past few hours hiking, Marc was excited about doing some actual running on the trail down from Engineer to Ouray. I was less excited. Much less excited. If you’re not familiar with the course, Bear Creek trail is narrow ledge that was basically dynamited into the side of the cliff hundreds of feet above the river. There is no guard rail. If you take a corner too fast and lose your footing… it’s probably not going to end super great.

Despite my objections – which were numerous, frequent, and vocal – we put in some good running on the descent and managed to arrive at Ouray just before dusk. My Crew Chief, Jeff Clowers – who I’d demoted at Grouse Gulch over the now infamous “Mountain Dew-Gate” fiasco – was on hand and redeemed himself by helping me change my dirty socks, and by once again plying me with ice-cold Mountain Dew.

Bear Creek is probably not the best place to be checking your Facebook messages
photo by Big Johnny Burton

This shit sucks!  

It’s important not to waste a lot of time at aid stations. My approach to aid-station time management is similar to my approach to love-making: get in quick; get out quick! But arriving into Ouray (mile 56.6), I decided to take a minute to sit down and enjoy a beer – a ginger beer?

I hadn’t been eating much all day due to nausea, so my pacer Marc thought a ginger beer might settle my stomach, while also sneaking in some calories. I only agreed to drink that crap because I mistakenly assumed it was actual beer – you know, the kind with alcohol! But no, it was all a scam.

Marc and I put on our headlamps and headed out of the aid station into the dark – as sober as we had entered. Originally I had planned to run most of the 7-mile long gradual climb up Bird Camp Road to Governor Basin. But, you know, I’d been drinking when I formulated that plan. Instead, Marc and I power-hiked most of it, with a few bouts of compulsory jogging thrown it on the flat bits.

Due to our erratic pacing, we ended up leap frogging with other runners quite a bit on this stretch of road. I was surprised to see so many runners all bunched together so tightly. Earlier in the day, I’d basically had each aid station to myself. But as we pulled into Governor’s, I found myself going elbow to elbow with Jamil Coury and Anna Frost for the last Salted Caramel Gu.

Leaving Governor’s aid station (mile 64.5) and heading up towards Kroger’s Canteen, I knew exactly what was awaiting us – a steep, towering wall of snow. And I was afraid; very afraid. (Though not as afraid as when you try to kill a spider on the ceiling but it falls on your pillow and disappears and you have no idea where it went. Not quite that bad. But still, bad).

“Winter is coming,” I quietly whispered. “White walkers. The Night King. We’re all going to die!!!”

“Didn't you say they have perogies at the top?” Marc asked, completely ignoring my dire forecast.

“Yes, and tequila too,” I replied begrudgingly.

In the end, I did somehow make it to the top – thanks in large part to 90-meter-long rope on the final pitch that we could use to pull ourselves up. The Kroger’s Canteen aid station (mile 67.8) is difficult to describe. It’s a small rocky saddle at the top of the mountain with barely enough room for a few people to stand. Yet somehow the volunteers haul hundreds of pounds of food and water (and apparently, Tequila) up the steep, snowy cliff in the days before the race.

I was still feeling nauseous, so I just had a small “no-thank-you helping” of Coke to appease ultra-running legend, Scott Jurek, who was working the aid station and didn’t want to send me out without any calories. Heading out of the aid station, Marc suggested that we try and do a little running; I suggested that he go to hell.

This was the section of the course where I had fallen and shattered my finger in 2014, a feat I had no plans to try and duplicate this year. Plus, the trail was covered completely in snow. And there were probably White Walkers lurking behind the trees. I was fairly certain we were going to die horribly. But I trudged on.

After a bit of route finding over some snow drifts, we finally located the road down toward Telluride.  The initial few miles of the descent were snowy and slippery; which sucked. The next miles were rocky and rutted; which also sucked. But, little did I know at the time, neither of those things would suck anywhere near as much as the climb we would encounter leaving Telluride.

This shit sucked!
photo by Mark Tanaka

This shit sucks worse!

As we made our way off the mountain and into the paved streets of downtown Telluride, there weren’t many revelers out partying at 1 am. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Telluride probably doesn’t have a vibrant night-club scene?

But, while the town residents may have all been asleep, my buddy Jeff was thankfully still awake and standing by with… more Mountain Dew! At this point I didn’t care whether it was warm, cold, or three-days old. I was so grateful that I decided to restore him to the full rank of “Vice-Admiral of Water-Bottle Refilling”.

Heading out of Telluride (mile 72.8) I was feeling strangely optimistic. Sure, my gimpy leg was still threatening to seize up at any second. And yes, I was still nauseous and hadn’t eaten any solid food since – well, yesterday, technically. But hey, we only had a little over a marathon left to go! Woo hoo.

“Fuck, we’ve still got a marathon to go,” I gasped to Marc as we power hiked up the long dirt road out of Telluride towards Oscars Pass. Suddenly, another runner and his pacer came sprinting by us. Sprinting… On a long, steep uphill. I turned to Marc with a confused look on my face that basically said, “Oh crap. What the fuck is happening? Are these guys really gonna sprint up the entire mountain?”.

Marc smiled, rolled his eyes, and shot back an expression that I interpreted as, “Who do these donkey fuckers think they’re fooling? No way these jackasses are gonna run the whole way. They’ll probably start walking once they get around the corner.”

A few miles later we caught back up with the “donkey fuckers” (who I’m sure are terrific dudes – when they’re not fucking donkeys). They were no longer sprinting. Nor even running. Nor even walking particularly fast. Though in their defense, the section of trail did suck donkey balls. Not only was it ridiculously steep, but it included several sketchy snow-bridges that crossed over treacherous icy mountain streams.

If I had been out there alone, I would have laid down on the side of the trail and cried myself to sleep. But Marc was in great spirits, and he made it look easy as he bounded up the mountain like a perkier (more-heavily bearded) Julie Andrews, belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of music…”. I won't lie; I kinda wanted to punch him in the face. But I trudged on.

We must have been moving well as we somehow caught up to and passed a couple other runners during the night (including Scott Jaime and Grant Guise) near the top of the Oscar’s Pass, which was completely covered in snow! I don’t recall much about the descent down into Chapman Gulch except that we caught up with Darcy Piceu just after dawn, right before the aid station.

I was in great spirits, having just put in some strong running (well, some strong hiking anyway) through the night, and having moved up 5 places. I was pretty sure that I was now in the top 10. Also, my nausea has miraculously subsided and I managed to eat two whole quesadillas! Correction, I managed to eat two whole bites, of one very-tiny piece, of quesadilla. But still, things were looking up!

And that’s when disaster struck. Throughout most of the race I’d had no idea what position I was in. Earlier in the day, I figured I was pretty far back, as no one had bothered to tell me how I was doing. Spectators rarely shout, “Yes! You’re in 47th place!”. But now I was fairly confident that I had moved up into the top ten and was going to realize my goal of, "top 10 or death".

As we left the aid station at Chapman (mile 82.1), Marc asked a volunteer how many people were ahead of us.  When she looked at her clipboard and said we were in 13th place, I was absolutely crushed. Just like that, I quietly gave up. That's not to say that I plopped down on the trail and tore off my bib number. No, I kept moving. My legs were still willing to fight. But my mind had already put on some comfortable pajamas and poured a giant glass of wine. But, I trudged on.

Where's the flat, runnable stuff???

This shit also sucks… in its own unique way

Things got even worse, when after leaving the aid station, we quickly came to a “peculiarly marked” intersection. By “peculiarly marked”, I mean marked in such a way as to provide no actual assistance whatsoever, and causing more confusion than if it hadn’t even been marked at all!

As we approached the intersection there was only one marker, and it was on the right-hand side of our trail, directly before the intersection. There were no additional markers on the far side of the intersection, nor any markers (to the right or the left) of the trail we were intersecting. Marc and I debated what to do. I suggested we turn right. Marc however, reminded me, that when in doubt at Hardrock always choose the steepest, shittiest route possible. And so, we went straight.

Hardrock pro tip #4: In the absence of any course markings, go uphill. Unless, there’s a river; in which case cross the river and then go uphill. Or unless you’ve reached the top of the mountain, in which case look for the steepest, scariest, most snowy route down and go that way.

Three or four miles after the “peculiarly marked” intersection, as we were almost to the top of the climb, we finally saw a confidence marker indicating we going the right way. “Yeah, thanks for that guys; super fucking helpful,” I yelled loudly while holding up both middle fingers.

“Oh shit,” Marc interrupted. That got my attention! From my experience, it’s rarely a good sign when your pacer blurts out, “Oh shit”. It’s hardly ever, “Oh shit, look, there’s the finish line already” or “Oh shit, someone left this cold beer sitting on the trail.” Rather, it’s usually – as it was in this particular case – “Oh shit, how are we supposed to climb up that!”.

Against my better judgement I raised my eyes and looked up. Fuck! It was a giant wall of scree. (Damn it, I knew I shouldn’t have looked up.) Marc, sensing my trepidation, did his best to reassure me. “I think we can probably make it!”, he chirped. Umm, nice pep talk coach! While I had no idea how this was going to unfold, if I were a betting man, I would have put my money on “death by avalanche or other Act of God”. But, I trudged on.

Spoiler alert: we did not die in an avalanche – as much as I would have preferred it at the time.  No, somehow we made it up the scree field to the summit of Grant Swamp Pass where I promptly collapsed on the ground – to the delight of the film crew who scrambled into action to thoroughly document my suffering.

Summiting Grant-Swamp Pass scree field
photo by Ben Wyrick Imagery

Eventually I got up and started trotting down the mountain. Though, much to Marc’s dismay, I kept screwing around and stopping every few minutes. First to take care of some urgent business in the bushes. Then to extricate a “giant rock” from my shoe, which turned out to be a quite small pebble (or possibly even just a large grain of sand). And finally to change shirts. “Hey Marc, which shirt makes me look faster,” I asked, “the white Salomon tee, or the blue Patagonia tank?”

Alas, my fashion show ended abruptly as Darcy Piceu came flying down the trail. Reluctantly I tucked in behind Darcy and did some actual running for a while. But that didn’t last very long. I was doing my best to “keep my foot on the gas pedal” as they say, but I kept hearing this strange knocking sound. And then my “check engine” light suddenly started flashing. And then smoke poured out from under my shorts. And then my tires went flat.

Embracing the suck

I tried to convince Marc that we should hitch-hike back to the finish… Or, call an Uber! But he mumbled about his phone being dead. And so, we trudged on. Darcy and another runner were just leaving the KT aid station (mile 89.1) as Marc and I hiked in. With only 10 or so miles left, I knew I could make to the finish line, but I was in no mood to race anyone. I was ready to be done.

I told Marc that I didn’t have any fight left in me and that I was just going to hike it in to the finish. I knew his feet were bothering him, as he’d come into the race with some bad blisters from a multi-day excursion in the Olympic Mountains a few days prior. I asked him to catch a ride out from the aid station so that he could hopefully save what was left of his feet for his upcoming races at White River 50 and Run Rabbit Run 100.

And so, I shuffled off alone, once more up the mountain. On paper, the final climb doesn’t look particularly intimidating. “How hard can it be,” I asked rhetorically. Two miles later, I was slumped over a rock puking on my shoes. “Touché. Well played, Hardrock.” After my puke break, I continued shuffling up the mountain, stopping occasionally to catch my breath and take in the views.

At one point, I looked back behind and saw two figures on the ridge below. It looked like a male runner and his female pacer. The guy appeared to be down on one knee, possibly fishing something out of his pocket. I hope he’s not proposing to her, I thought. And I hope he’s not kneeling in a puddle of my puke. But hey, that’s Hardrock for you!

Eventually, after a half-dozen or so false summits I finally made it to the top of Cataract-Putnam Ridge. The descent down to Putnam aid station (mile 94.7) was very runnable; but I walked it. In fact, I walked all the way to the finish! Six runners passed me in those final miles, and I happily stepped off to the side of the trail and cheered each one on.

Lesser men might have been shamed into jogging the last few blocks, or at least running down the finishing chute. Nope, I walked all that shit. I walked proudly, triumphantly! I walked like a man who had embraced his mortality, grabbed it by the ass, and kissed it on the mouth. I went for broke, and I got broke. But I trudged on. 😉

The End