Friday, September 29, 2023

IMTUF 100 Race Report

"The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected" -- Robert Frost


Full disclosure: this isn’t your typical race report. I’m not going to bore you with all kinds of factual information about the race and the course. If you want to know about each creek crossing and the exact GPS location of every rock on the route, I’m guessing that information is included in the 47-page-long race guide available on the race’s website (which I definitely plan to read… one day).

No, this “race report” is more of a “love letter”. A love letter written by an aging runner who has accepted the fact that his body has begun to slow down, and that his fastest days are likely behind him now, but who is immensely grateful – grateful to still be able to do what brings him joy, grateful to be able to move through the mountains with some grace, grateful for the people in his life (both past and present). Grateful. Full stop.

To pole or not to pole, that is the question…

It’s the day before the IMTUF 100 miler and my buddy Loren – who is going to be pacing me for the last 46 miles of the race – swings by my house to pick me up on our way to the airport. As I climb into the passenger seat, I glance at his race gear, tucked neatly in the back.

Dude, “Where did you find those hiking poles… at a garage sale… in 1970?” I jokingly ask, ogling his huge, aluminum hiking poles – the kind with the with big rubber safety tips on the bottom to help the elderly avoid slipping on wet floors at Bob Evan’s.

“Did you buy those at CVS, next to the Metamucil and reading glasses,” I continue teasing? “I’m surprised they don’t have tennis balls on the bottoms,” I toss in for good measure. “What else did you pick up at the pharmacy?” I inquire. “Does Ensure even make sports gels?” I blurt out, now laughing uncontrollably.

Loren's poles. LOL!

“These poles have been to Mt. Everest base camp I’ll have you know!” Loren exclaims defiantly.

“Oh, did you take them off a dead climber whose body had been frozen on the mountain for 50 years?” I quip.  “Who made those things anyway… Spaulding?” I jest, naming the oldest sporting goods brand that comes to mind.

I then proceed pull out my lightweight, carbon-fiber, Black Diamond Z poles that conveniently fold down into a third of their full size, allowing me to neatly stuff them into the Salomon custom quiver attached to the back of my hydration pack. “You need to get yourself a pair of these bad boys,” I instruct. “Look at the sharp carbide tips,” I exclaim while wielding my pole like a fencing epée, dangerously close to Loren’s face.

Loren and I proceed to spend the remainder of the 45-minute car ride to the airport discussing the pros and cons of whether to bring our poles to the race or not. Neither of us are huge fans of poles. But, having recently sustained a rather severe injury to my left ankle, which is still painful, swollen, and unstable, I’m hoping that poles – along with my ankle brace – with provide some degree of stability and give me a better shot at completing this exceptionally difficult course.

Plus, I figure using poles may help spare my legs by shifting some strain away from my legs to my upper body. Having been sidelined by my torn ankle for over two months, I’ve only recently been able to start running again, putting in just one week of solid training. I figure my quads are going to need all the help they can get.

Loren however, decides he’s going sans poles. Part of his concern is that his ridiculously large poles are too large to stow away when not in use, meaning he will have to carry them the entire time during the race, making it difficult to free up his hands for things like scrambling over rocks, stuffing quesadillas into his face at aid stations, and high fiving other race participants and spectators. “Jesus. How much high fiving are you planning to do out there,” I ask, bemused.

Hopefully Loren will upgrade to these!

Loren then reveals that his primary concern is that TSA won’t allow him through security with the poles, which could be perceived as a weapon. I try to assure him that no one has ever tried to highjack a plane with a rubber tipped walking cane. Loren and I start laughing at the mental image of him waving his poles about while shouting, “Turn this plane around. I need to go home. I forgot my arthritis medication.”

While we joke about old age, I am acutely aware of the fact that, having recently turned 50 and 51 respectively earlier this year, Loren and I – while in damn-good shape for our ages – are technically no longer young men. I don’t want to call it a mid-life crisis, but I have recently accepted – albeit somewhat begrudgingly – that I’m not getting younger, or faster. And, unfortunately, much like sands in an hourglass, so too is the cartilage in my knees.

I’m not sure how it happened, this getting-old nonsense. One day I was in my mid-forties, at the peak of my powers, winning races and collecting Strava KOMs, the way a four-year old collects candy on Halloween – exuberantly, by the handful, stuffing it in his face as he skips down the sidewalk. Then suddenly, the next day I’m looking in the mirror at a fifty-year old man with graying hair and growing laugh lines. But as they say… getting old sure beats the alternative.

The trouble with training

They say you should train for races. You know, long runs on the weekend and that sort of thing. And I was really hoping to put in a dedicated training block for IMTUF. I even rented a condo up in Tahoe for a high-altitude training camp, which I pitched to my family as an impromptu summer vacation! “Yeah guys, we’ll do lots of fun family stuff together. Like have breakfast together. And then say good night to each other at bedtime when I return from my epic all-day hike. You know, family fun!”

But unfortunately, the training camp / family vacation was cut short when I took a hard fall running down the mountain one evening and tore every ligament in my ankle, including a grade 3 “complete” tear of my ATFL. As I hobbled out of Urgent Care on crutches with my foot in an air cast, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to run trails again. Certainly, there’s no way I would be running IMTUF in just over two months.

Modeling the latest in footwear fashion

I did some research and then spoke with a podiatric surgeon who laid out my options. “Option A: We can surgically remove a section of muscle tissue from your leg, and then transplant it into your ankle. Recovery time will be 4-6 months. You’ll need to be in a full cast for the first couple of months, and then a walking boot…”.

“Sorry to interrupt Doc, but what about option B: Go f*ck yourself!” I shouted defiantly, intending to make a quick, dramatic exit out of the office. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated just how difficult it is to open the hospital exit doors while using crutches and trying carry a handful of medical paperwork. Several minutes later, as the entire lobby watched in amusement, I finally managed to hobble out of the building.

And so, I made up my mind that instead of having surgery to repair the torn ligament, I was going to start doing 10,000 calf raises a day to strengthen all the surrounding muscles and ligaments in my foot, ankle, and calf in order to compensate for the missing ligament. “Time to pick up the slack, fucker!” I shouted in the general direction of my fibularis longus muscle, not knowing exactly what the fibularis longus is, much less precisely where it is located.

With only a couple weeks to go before the race, I still wasn’t completely sure whether my ankle was battle-ready or not. So, I decided to head back up to Tahoe for a week to hike the steepest, craziest, most technical routes I could find. At the end of the week my ankle still hadn’t exploded or fallen off, so I figured what the hell, let’s give this a shot.

Tis but a flesh wound

Mandatory reading…

Having completed over 100 ultra marathons at this point in my life, I tend to read race descriptions with a bit of healthy skepticism, skipping over the hyperbole and overly detailed turn-by-turn directions that I’m never going to remember anyway. “Crap, I forget, am I supposed to turn left after the small Aspen tree by the large rock, or after the large Aspen tree by the small rock?”

Now I just skim race manuals for any interesting nuggets. After all, most races are essentially the same. They all have aid stations every 6 – 12 miles or so. And the aid stations all provide some kind watery-liquid, sugary gels, and carbohydrate-laden snacks.

The biggest mystery is how stale the P&B sandwich bites will be, and how many yellow jackets you’ll have to battle for the last turkey-avocado wrap. Oddly, race manuals very rarely address these two critical pieces of information.

I’ve yet to run a race that was like, “No, sorry. Didn’t you read the race manual? We don’t have water at our aid stations. Just driveway gravel and cornstarch. Which can we fill your bottles with?”

The race manual for IMTUF was 47 pages long. “Eff that! I’m a busy man. I work full time. I have a family. I don’t have time to read the Atlas Shrugged of race manuals,” I thought to myself, quickly flipping through the manual with one eye, while doom-scrolling through cat videos on my phone with the other eye. “Ha, ha, ha. The cat just stole that dog’s bed. Look how utterly confused that poor dog is. I think he might cry! OMG!”

As I was scrolling through the guide – which presumably contained all kinds of important information like the start time of the race, the location of the starting line, the tricky sections of the course where you might get lost – my focus started to wane. “Oh look, that cat just got stuck in a ceiling fan! Hilarious!” But then, something in the race guide caught my eye.

“Holy shit! This race has a vicious bird that attacks runners and steals their trucker hats. The bird even dive-bombed the RD and knocked him unconscious. How friggin’ awesome is that!” Also, “Hey Siri, what’s a goshawk? And – just asking for a friend – is it legal to own one in California?”

Griffin the goshawk, is that you?

Who needs sleep anyway?

I usually sleep pretty well before races. Not because I possess a Zenlike ability to clear my mind and turn off all my thoughts. No, it’s mainly because I drug myself. I’ve suffered from insomnia most of my life, and early in my ultra-running career I would find myself tossing and turning in unfamiliar hotel-room beds, unable to fall asleep until an hour or so before my alarm was set to go off at some ridiculously early hour.

However, at some point in the past few years I discovered the miracle of medical-grade THC gummies, and now I generally don’t have any problems falling asleep on race night… unless I happen to be extremely stressed. However, going into this race, a couple of things were indeed weighing on my mind. It would be completely understandable to be stressed about my ankle injury and relative lack of training. But oddly, I wasn’t really worried about that. In fact, one could argue that I was irrationally overconfident about my fitness and training.

However, my mother was recently diagnosed with invasive squamous cell carcinoma, which has spread, and which needs to be treated with radiation therapy. I know there are far worse cancers and that my mother will probably – hopefully – be okay. But “probably” and “hopefully” don’t provide the assurances you crave when the life of someone you love is hanging in the balance.

And then there was this silly thing at work.

Last Fall I was laid off from my job at work after essentially being with the same company for 23 years. It took me nearly five months before I finally received a couple of offers and accepted a new position. The whole ordeal was incredibly stressful, and so I’m naturally doing everything I can to be as successful as possible in my new role.

So, when I was asked by my new company if I would be willing to moderate a webinar at midnight on Sunday night – only hours after finishing IMTUF and having been on my feet for over 30 hours – I quickly said, “Sure no problem.” What could possibly go wrong?

As I lay in bed the night before the race, I began to make a mental inventory of all the things that could in fact go incredibly wrong. What if the race ends up taking closer to the 36-hour cutoff than to my planned 30-hour-ish finishing time and I miss my Sunday evening flight home? And, even if I do finish in time and make the flight, am I going to be able to stay awake and alert during the webinar after having been awake for nearly 48 hours?

And so, I spent most of the night restlessly rolling around the bed performing pillow origami, twisting and folding my hotel-room sheets and pillows into various configurations. Oh look, it’s a swan! No wait, it’s pterodactyl.

Pillow origami

Hotel room coffee

I slid out of bed at 4 am and began my usual pre-race ritual. Two cups of questionable-provenance hotel-room coffee, black, prepared using my buddy Loren’s proprietary brewing technique (something about optimal water volume, temperature, and bicarbonate hardness). Lube the toes. Lube the undercarriage. Sacrifice live pigeon, burn incense, pray for the death of my enemies. Fill soft flasks with diluted Gu Roctane mix. Go time!!!

Of course, no race report is complete without an overly detailed account of the morning’s bowel movements. Sadly, I had nothing to report at the time. But no worries, I was relatively sure that there would be porta potties at the start line. But not completely sure, because – well you know – the whole not reading the race guide thing.

Getting to the race starting line proved to be a bit of an adventure. It probably would have been useful to have read the race guide that explained how to get there without driving across the fairway of the golf course that was hosting the event. “Loren, watch out for the sand trap,” I scream as he shifts the rental SUV into all-wheel drive just before plowing off the green into the rough, narrowly avoiding the 18th hole.

We hadn’t arrived in time the night before to pick up my race bib from packet pickup – or to attend the pre-race briefing – due to “logistical complications”, which is another way of saying that I mistakenly thought the packet pickup ran until 7 pm when it actually ended at 6 pm. Maybe reading that race guide might not have been a terrible idea after all.

But the upside was that, not having to spend time driving to packet pickup, Loren and I had time to finish listening to Taylor Swift’s Midnights album in its entirety… multiple times. Loren is a dear friend. And who doesn’t love TayTay? But do I really want to have Anti-Hero stuck in my head for the next 30 or so hours? Yes, of course I do; that was a rhetorical question. “It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me…”.

After signing in and picking up my race bib on race morning, I had an hour to kill before the start, so I made a couple more unproductive trips to the porta-potties before resigning myself to the fact that it was apparently a bank holiday, and that I would not be taking care of any business this morning.

Typically, I am quite nervous before a big event, especially when I’ve put in a big training block and invested a lot of time and emotional energy. But, as I came into this event with only a week of solid training and a gimpy ankle, I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I wasn’t approaching this as an actual race. I was here with one goal, and one goal only – finish under the cutoff and punch my ticket to try to get back to Hardrock.

Unleash the glow worm!

Other runners who read the race guide informed me that the RD was going to blow an elk bugle to start the race. “He’s going to blow an elk?” I asked somewhat groggily, hoping for clarification. “That’s legal in Idaho?” Thankfully no elk – or bugles – were blown, and the race started uneventfully with a chorus of cowbells and line of headlamps quietly snaking their way up the pre-dawn mountain, like a sleepy glowing worm.

Not wanting to go out too hard and possibly roll my ankle in the dark, but also not wanting to get stuck too far in the back of a slow-moving conga line and be forced to walk the runnable sections of the opening climb, I settled in toward the back-of-the-front of the race. The pace was rather enjoyable, and the opening miles passed by pleasantly.

After an hour or so we emerged out of the woods onto the ridge, just in time for sunrise on Jug Mountain. I turned off my headlamp and stashed my poles into my quiver, freeing up my hands for what – according to those people who had read the race guide – was going to be a treacherously steep, rocky descent that would require both free hands for scrambling.

(Note: apparently the race guide was also very clear that all runners were required to walk this section and that anyone who attempted to run it would be disqualified; what the race guide probably should have also mentioned is that the disqualification would be issued posthumously – as anyone who tries to run this section would likely die).

At this point, those of you who know me may be wondering… you ran it anyway, right John? Embarrassingly, I must confess that in fact I did… not. Also, there may have been some whimpering involved.

@Cary Johnson Photography

Oh look, another postcard

As I cautiously made my way down the mountain, carefully picking my line to try to avoid re-injuring my ankle, I laughed to myself thinking about what my surgeon had said a week prior when I’d asked him if it was okay for me to resume some light running again. “Yes, of course. Just take it easy. And try to avoid trails or any uneven surfaces.” LOL. Sure thing doc!

As I picked my way down off the ridge, I suddenly I caught a whiff of something delicious wafting through the mountain air. Bacon! And just like that, I was flying down into the Louie Lake Dam aid station where moments later I would be stuffing my face with a makeshift sandwich fashioned using two pancakes and handful of bacon. Mmm.

Leaving Louie Lake, the course continued up and down along the ridge. These next miles of the race were absolutely breathtaking. Panoramic, mountain-top views of alpine lakes for miles and miles. It was like nothing I have ever seen or experienced. Other races, like Hardrock 100 and Teanaway 100 have a signature alpine lake that greets runners at some point in the race. But IMTUF was one signature alpine lake after another. It was comically beautiful. Almost bordering on absurd. The best way to describe it is as a series of one amazing postcard photo after another. It is hands down the most beautiful course I’ve ever run!

@Alex Marshall

I would have been content to stay up there forever, just soaking in the views. But I knew I needed to keep moving if I wanted to make my flight home on Sunday evening. So, I pressed on and followed the course as it began plummeting down the mountain several thousand feet to the Lake Fork aid station.

But I would first have to pass through an area of trail patrolled by Griffin the Goshawk, the notoriously viscous bird with a documented history of bird-on-human violence! Luckily, Griffin had recently acquired himself a lady-bird acquaintance and was apparently in a luvin’ mood rather than a fighting mood.

And so, I arrived at the Lake Fork aid station unmauled with all my appendages intact. I’d only brought two drop bags for this race, as I wanted to avoid having to check a bag at the airport to save time. So, I had decided to put one bag at Lake Fork as we would run through this aid station twice – once at mile 22 on the way out and then again at mile 80 on the return loop.

However, it was still early in the race, and I didn’t actually need anything from my drop bag yet. I momentarily considered taking off my headlamp and stashing it in my drop bag so that I wouldn’t have to carry it in my pack all day, but I decided it might be smart to keep a headlamp on me – you know, just in case. This decision would turn out to be clutch – but more on that later.

Speaking of good decisions. As I was perusing the aid station offerings, trying to decide between the grilled cheese bites and the quesadilla wedges, my eye drifted over to a plate of warm grilled peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches. Holy shit! Best decision I made all day. They were so good!

Chasing UTVs

The climb out of Lake Fork was what I would politely describe as, “extremely spirited”. That is to say, using the formula y = mx + b, where m is the coefficient of x representing the slope of the line… m was definitely not equal to zero – if you know what I mean. Wink, wink.

We would gain nearly 2,000 feet over the next two miles, with much of the climb being rather rocky and technical. I relied heavily on my poles during this climb and felt that I was able to move quite well, while hopefully conserving some energy and leg strength for later in the race (Spoiler alert: I had neither strength nor energy later in the race. LOL.).

Don't fall in!

I was feeling pretty good at the top of the climb, so I decided to take off the handbrake and let it rip on the downhill, throwing down what felt like a 7-minute mile – but which Strava later indicated was closer to a 17-minute mile. Oh well.

In fairness, the descent was not ideal as the trail was covered in several inches of powdery dirt with each foot-strike producing huge clouds of fine dust that irritated my lungs and my eyes. I experimented with a couple of different dust-mitigation strategies, none of which proved ideal.

First, I tried not breathing. While that did solve the initial problem of inhaling dust, it also resulted in a few undesirable side effects including dizziness, blurred vision, and extreme hypoxia. So, I reluctantly resumed breathing again.

I’d wished I’d brought a bandana that I could have tied around my nose and mouth. I briefly considered taking off one of my socks and/or my compression shorts and trying to fashion some sort of mask. But that seemed like a lot of work. Also, I was worried what the volunteers might think when I rolled into the aid station, bare bottomed and sockless with my underwear in my mouth. I pictured the locals explaining to each other, “He’s from California… near San Francisco,” and then all nodding in unison, “Ah, that explains it.”

Towards the bottom of the descent, I managed to catch, and eventually pass, two side-by-side UTVs, who were kicking up quite a bit of dust as they made their way down the steep, rocky section.  At first, I was unsure of the proper protocol for overtaking motorized vehicles on the trail. Do I yell “track” and pass on the inside lane using track-and-field etiquette? Or do I signal my intent to pass using my headlamp as a turn-signal?

Eventually I just spoke up and asked if it was okay if I ran by. Both drivers were extremely accommodating and pulled over to let me pass. Grateful, I tried my hand at a little humor, inquiring where one could find the nearest Telsa charging station. Sadly, the joke bombed. Or maybe they just didn’t hear me???

Goats hiking supplies in to 45th Parallel aid station

The petting zoo

I came into the South Crestline aid station at 50K feeling reasonably good, considering I’d already been on my feet for over 8 hours already. However, I was starting to feel like I was falling a bit behind on my calories. I realized that aside from the aid station sandwiches, I’d only eaten a couple of gels in between aid stations.

With a long uphill hiking section in front of me, I figured now would be a good time to take in as many calories as possible, as the extended hiking break would allow my body time to digest. “Matre’d, I’ll take a bottle of your finest cola,” I requested. “In a glass, if it’s not too much trouble,” I added, still hoping that one of my jokes would land.

“Tough crowd,” I mumbled smiling, as I headed out of the aid station, ready to get my hike on.

When people ask me what kind of running I enjoy most – flats, hills, technical off trail, etc. – I typically respond, only half-jokingly, “walking.” Or to be more accurate, power hiking. When the trail gets so steep that it becomes impractical and inefficient to run, I can generally out hike everybody else. It’s kind of my superpower. 

@Cary Johnson Photography

According to the course profile – which I had printed out and laminated (and by “laminated” I just mean that I stuffed it into a Ziplock snack bag) – the next ten miles would be completely uphill.  Much to my horror however, the trail turned out to be much less steep than I was expecting.

“Oh crap, this trail looks runnable,” I muttered. “What the heck. Nobody told me there was going to be actual running involved!” I grumbled. I made a mental note to take up this up with the RD later.

And so, I spent the next hour doing this weird little shuffle-dance thing that was neither quite walking nor quite running. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to imagine someone who really has to use the bathroom and wants to get there as quickly as possible but doesn’t dare run for fear of wetting themselves. That was me. Doing the pee-pee shuffle for 6 miles.

Suddenly, about halfway up the mountain, the 45th parallel aid station came into view, and I instinctively broke into a trot, perhaps even a light canter. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the bushes to the right of the aid station. Surely some apex predator was about to pounce, descending upon the aid station and dismembering everyone in sight. The only question was whether it was a grizzly bear, a mountain lion, a saber-toothed tiger, or maybe a velociraptor?

“Run! Run for your lives everyone,” I shouted. “It’s a pack of vicious… goats???” I trailed off. Apparently, the goats were part of the aid station, having helped carry the aid station supplies up the mountain. Seeing a couple other runners taking selfies with two of the goats, I reached my hand out to pet a goat who was tied up to a tree off by himself.

“No!!! That one bites!” shouted one of the aid station volunteers. Too late to react, I braced myself for impact. Instead of searing pain, I felt a warm licking sensation on my arm. Apparently, I was a human salt lick. Minutes later, after being thoroughly tongue bathed and de-salted, I continued my journey.

Human salt lick!

Ups and downs

The next section of the course consisted of a series of climbs and descents. I had spent most of the day running by myself, aside from one downhill section earlier in the day where I briefly chatted with a runner named Mike from Arizona who was nursing an Achilles injury. While I’m used to being alone with my thoughts, it is sometimes nice to pass the time chatting with other runners.

Leaving the 45th Parallel aid station, I found myself moving at the same speed as a couple of other runners including Alison from Alaska, an IMTUF veteran who had completed the course two years ago, and Tim from British Columbia, who I noticed was wearing a FatDog120 shirt – a race that I have fond memories of having managed to win it back in 2016.

We spent the new few hours chatting and before I knew it, we’d arrived at the North Crestline aid station! Looking at my watch, I realized that I was way behind my projected splits. It was going to get dark and cold soon, well before I made it down to the next aid station at Upper Payette Lake, where my headlamp and warm clothes would be waiting, along with my pacer Loren.

Thankfully, I had held on to my headlamp from the morning, so at least I would have some light when it got dark. But I was a bit worried about the cold, as I had only brought a light windbreaker in my pack. While I would have liked to wait for Tim and Alison, I told them that I better get moving.

@Di Wu

I quickly caught up with a couple of other runners on the gravel road descent, including a guy named Daniel from Southern California with whom I would end up running much of the rest of the race off and on. Daniel and I started chatting about everything under the sun… from blisters, to blister prevention, to blister care. We were so enthralled in our talk of all things blisters, that we didn’t notice that it had gotten dark… or that we had completely overshot our turn and gone over a mile off-course down the mountain.

Some light profanity ensured. But eventually we retraced our steps up the mountain and found our missed turn. I put on my headlamp and tried to do my best to point out any potential obstacles to Daniel who didn’t have a light of his own. Miraculously, we made it down the overgrown, rock-strewn trail, aptly named “Terrible Terrence” without incident.

This is the part where John throws a temper tantrum

As I rolled into Upper Payette Lake aid station at mile 56, I apologized profusely to my pacer Loren, who was shivering in the dark, having been waiting in the cold for many hours. “Don’t worry, you’ll warm up on the upcoming climb!” I offered optimistically. [Spoiler alert: Loren would not warm up. Not on the climb, not ever!].

“I just need a few minutes to reset and get my shit together,” I explained as I fumbled around in the dark, trying to swap out the battery in my headlamp... “First, I need to pop these blisters and put on clean socks. Then I need to find my warm gloves. I also need to use the bathroom before we head out. And where’s that Mountain Dew that I asked you to pick up?” I spouted in a stream of consciousness.

“The hotel vending machine didn’t have Mountain Dew, so I got you a Red Bull…” Loren started to explain.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I screamed in horror, having just heard a loud cracking noise while trying to insert the battery into the connector of my headlamp. “Fuck, I just broke my headlamp!”

Loren tried his best to be helpful, offering completely logical, rational advice such as, “It’s okay. Maybe someone has a spare headlamp you can borrow. Let me go check.”

But I was having no part of it. Some not-so-light profanity ensued. As I continued unleashing a stream of F-bombs, Loren politely excused himself. “I’m going to give you a few minutes,” he said, slinking away.

“It’s okay now Loren, I think I managed to MacGyver it! Let’s go!” I shouted excitedly moments later, completely forgetting to pop my blisters or change into my warm gloves. I did, however, remember to use the outhouse on the way out.

Speaking of outhouses, normally I try to do my business and get out of vault toilets as quickly as possible due to the less than Spring-fresh smells. But I must say, this was one of the nicer ones I’ve encountered. It had great ambience. Someone had decked it out with an air freshener and a soft reading light. And it was nice and warm in there. I really didn’t want to leave. I laughed out loud thinking about how I was going to explain to people that I DNF’d because I sat in an outhouse all night.

Upper Payette Lake aid station

Skipping ahead to the good parts

We’re now over 75 miles into IMTUF and Loren and I have just climbed one of the toughest “trails” I’ve ever encountered in a race. I put the word “trail” in quotes, because to be honest, I’m still not sure it really was an actual trail. I’m told the race guide simply describes it by saying, “climb the ferocious mountain slope above with only a few switchbacks for help.” You’ll notice that there’s tellingly no usage of the word “trail” in that description.

“Hey John, do you think they made this trail just for the race?” our new friend Daniel asks.

“Dude, I’m not even sure this is a real trail,” I respond. “I think we’re basically mountain climbing at this point. I wish I’d brought my chalk bag and cams,” I mutter.

Now we are at the top of the climb, having just gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles, staring down at a steep, rocky, precipice.

“Hey, do you want to borrow one of my poles for this descent,” I ask, looking back at Loren who suffers from vertigo and whose facial expression indicates that he is clearly apprehensive about falling off this cliff to his death. Like any good pacer, Loren knows the correct answer to this question is always, “No, that’s okay John. You keep both your poles. I’ll be alright.”

Yet, without hesitating for even a second, Loren blurts out, “Yes! Yes, I do want one,” snatching a pole straight out of my hand.

Courting elk

“Loren, what the heck are you doing?” I ask, watching as he stands with his hands on his hips, pointing his pelvis into the woods while gyrating rhythmically, performing what appears to be some kind of primal mating ritual. “Are you trying to court an elk?” I ask?

“No, my headlamp ran out of batteries,” Loren offers, as if some kind of satisfactory explanation.

“Huh?” I mutter.

“So now I’m using my backup waist light. But the problem is that when I turn my head to locate the course-marking ribbons, the waist light doesn’t turn. So, I have to point my hips where I want to see,” he explains.

And so, we spend the next few hours hiking through the woods, letting Loren’s crotch lead the way.

The coldest hour is just before the dawn

“Bro, I can’t feel my fingers,” Loren announces, trying to tear open the plastic wrapper on one of those Hot Hands air-activated hand warmers. “I think these things are expired,” he says, squinting at the package labelling.

“Well, I can’t feel my fingers, my nose, or my penis!” I add, commiserating. “But sunrise is in less than an hour and it will hopefully warm up soon.”

Loren, who is notorious for getting cold easily, is wearing five separate layers of clothing. “Dude, what are you going to do with your sweater when the sun comes out and it gets hot later this afternoon?” I ask. “We’re not going to finish until like 2pm, right?” I say, struggling to perform basic math calculations.

Loren and I then proceed to spend the next two hours in an embarrassingly futile effort to do “ultra math”.

“Well, using the equation V = d/t, where V is our velocity, d is the distance remaining, and t is the time…” I begin.

“But is t the current time, our elapsed time, or our finish time?” Loren interjects.

“Umm, good question I say, throwing my hands up in defeat. I guess I should have paid more attention in physics class. “I just hope we finish in time to make it to the airport, so we don’t miss our flight home!”

@Cary Johnson Photography

On top of the world

“Hey Loren, I think we’re almost to the top of this last climb,” I announce excitedly, pulling out my “laminated” course profile just to verify. “Hmm, that’s odd. According to the chart, we’re only halfway to the top. That can’t be right, can it,” I mumble, hoping it’s just a typo. [Spoiler alert: It’s no typo].

An hour later Loren and I reach the actual top, cresting Boulder Peak at a little over 8,300 ft. We’re greeted by amazing 360-degree panoramic views of the mountains, lakes, and wildflowers. “Best seat in the house,” Loren sighs, gazing off into the distance.

The hills are alive with the sound of... Loren?

We spend a few minutes on top of the world, quietly taking it all in. I then draw a deep breath and brace myself for the last twelve miles. "I’ve got this. I’ve fucking got this!" I whisper, giving myself a little pep talk.

My right foot is completely covered in giant blisters by this point and every step is excruciatingly painful. And my left ankle, which has miraculously held up thus far, is finally starting to complain loudly. Looking down, I notice it has doubled in size since the start of the race. I speculate that perhaps with the increased swelling, the ankle brace is now cutting into my foot. So, I decide to remove my brace and hope for the best.

No longer encumbered by the brace which had been slowly cutting off circulation to my foot, Loren and I fly down the gravel road into the last aid station. They’re serving breakfast! As I make myself another delicious bacon-pancake sandwich, I’m suddenly cognizant of the fact that a full day has come and gone, and that the only constants in this world are apparently blisters and bacon.

It's all downhill from here

While I would have been content to sit there all morning, eating pancakes and exchanging profundities, we have a race to finish, and flights to catch. “It’s all downhill from here,” the aid station captain announces cheerfully, sending us on our way.

“What the actual fuck!!!” I sigh exasperatedly, looking up at a hundred-foot hill that has appeared in front us. “All downhill my fucking ass!” It’s not lost on me that my speech has been steadily deteriorating and becoming more and more profanity laced with each passing hour.

Loren on the other hand, seems to have caught his second wind. He’s sprinting off into the distance, shrieking with delight as he runs through the wildflowers flailing his arms with glee. I later learn that he surreptitiously downed a Five Hour energy shot at the last aid station.

The last few miles seem to take forever. I keep checking my watch every few minutes, but it feels like I’m hardly making any progress. 1.7 miles to go. 1.6 miles to go. 1.5 miles to go. Will this ever end?

Eventually we crest one last hill, and the finish line finally comes into sight below. We did it! We f'ing did it! I stop in my tracks and turn to Loren. “Bring it in bro,” I say, extending my arms for a hug. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

I'm not crying, you're crying! LOL.

Link to Strava activity: 

Link to UltraSignup race results:

Link to IMTUF 100 website:


Telemarker said...

Ah, excellent stuff, as always. So many hilarious sections. But inquiring minds need more post-finish deets. Did you make your flight? Did the orthopedic surgeon need to amputate your defective foot? Most importantly, what happened at the webinar? Did you dominate it in a cocaine-fuelled rage? Sleep through it entirely? Did you keep your job?

Roxie said...

I've said it before, I will say it again...if you ever lose your job again, you can definitely get a job in the comedy industry, or you might even find a movie producer to make your stories in million dollar movies :)Great post filled with witty jokes. Did your feet get wet on the course, is that why you got a blister? At RRR I had dry feet the entire race and walked away with one heel blister that I did not pop either. How does one pop a blister mid race? I think that is the intermediate to advanced course of ultra running, for I have yet to learn such advanced skills. Congrats for finishing such a tough race with all your mishaps prior to. Keep inspiring and entertain :):)

Big Johnny Burton said...

Stay tuned for the coming epilogue. But yes, we narrowly made our flight -- thanks to Loren's lead foot and a slight take-off delay due to some mechanical issues. The rental car company was not thrilled with us not refilling the tank and just leaving the car in front of the gate. I see some hefty fines in my future. And, thanks to two cans of gas-station energy drinks, I was wide awake and alert for the webinar, which was a success. All's well that ends well, as they say!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks Roxie! And congrats again on your strong RRR performance! I was so happy to see you bring that one home!

Yeah, IMTUF had quite a few creek crossings. I think you could probably keep your feet dry on a lot of them, perhaps even most of them, with some careful rock hopping. But I saw one woman take a hard fall and get completely submerged early in the race when she slipped on a wet rock, so I said "fuck it" and just walked right through the water for all of the crossings. Oddly, my left foot (with the ankle brace) didn't get any blisters, while the right foot had at least 5 different blisters. So not sure what the deal was there. Maybe that shoe wasn't on tight enough???

Steve Day said...

great blog and fantastic race! So many laughs reading the blog, and now i want to run IMTUF. See you in the Hardrock lottery! Good luck

tja said...

Big Johnny, loved reading your stories as always. You should become a writer! Fat Thomas