The Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run was slated to be my “A Race” all year, but the trail running season was long. There were injuries, exhaustion, and the toll of co-directing the Castle Peak 100k. Nonetheless, I was able to put in the training and thought things might come together if I was lucky.
And I wanted it. I wanted a new 100-mile Personal Record (PR) and I wanted to push myself to a new place of physical challenge.
Coach Peter laid out the strategy: break the race into three 30-mile chunks, then the last 10 miles.
First 30 miles: look around and enjoy the race.
Middle 30 miles: focus; get through the heat of the day and know that things will get better after that.
Miles 60 – 90: start testing yourself; push a bit and see how it feels; reel in some other runners.
Last 10 miles: leave it all on the trail.
He wanted to write it down for me, but I preferred to savor the advice by committing it to memory. Later I would commit it to memory in a different way: “Have fun. Be tough and just a little reckless.”
The First 30 Miles: Have fun.
Last week someone asked me if I was nervous. “I’m not. At least not consciously,” I replied. In terms of my training, I knew that was a done deal. You can neither gain nor lose fitness in the last weeks leading to a race; you can only fail to rest or get injured. alea iacta est.
Truth be told, I did have one lingering anxiety surrounding the race. I was very worried about the logistics of the first 10-20 miles. It is a long climb in a congo line up single track. My best friend (and 6-time Wasatch winner) Betsy warned me that it can be dusty, “don’t get too far back in the line.” Yet, I didn’t want to get pushed into a pace that I would later regret.
I was also worried about the aid stations. The first official aid station is at mile 13.8, but Betsy told me there are always volunteers at a natural spring serving water at the top of the big climb, about mile 9. Uncertainty is the devil.
Then race morning started beautifully. I woke up at 2:23am, seven minutes before the alarm. I made coffee (my first cup in about a week), took a Vespa, and warmed my preferred pre-race food, tortilla de patata, even though it was nearly a week old. Javier (hubby / crew extraordinaire) drove me to the bus stop in downtown Salt Lake City. I had originally planned to walk, but decided that was too risky, so Javier kindly drove me to the bus at 3:30am.
I arrived at the start feeling great and positioned myself near the front of the crowd of 313 starters. I was pleasantly surprised to find the course less dusty and less steep than expected. The congo line was tolerable. If I could see a gap ahead, then I would pass a few runners until I was in front.
Coach Peter had given me some final pre-race instructions, and I kept these in mind the whole time. Essentially, he instructed me to mitigate the dust (he included some very specific strategies). Peter had a front-row seat to my asthma attack four weeks ago when he joined me for part of a 55-mile run on our Castle Peak 100k course. My exercise-induced asthma is heightened by both dust and smoke.
That’s the beauty of a coach. As this article in the New Yorker explains, coaches “observe, they judge, and they guide.” Good trail running coaches do so much more than email a training plan ~ they provide a third-party perspective on your strengths and weaknesses.
I proceeded up the 4000-foot climb and I just felt happy the whole time. It’s all working out! The trail is beautiful! The sun rising over Salt Lake City is lovely! And, then, just before mile 9, I encountered a couple of kindly volunteers serving up fresh spring water! I remembered to look around. And I had fun!
Middle 30 miles: Be tough.
Temperature extremes are a hallmark for the Wasatch 100: burning high-altitude sun on the exposed course during the day, followed by freezing temps overnight. Race morning was unusually warm, as I saw 68 degrees on my iPhone at 4:45am.
I had been repeatedly warned that the section from Big Mountain (mile 39) to Lamb’s (mile 52) would be very hot and exposed. I expected this. I trained for this by suffering though 30-60 minute sauna sessions (thank you Dana for this suggestion years ago!)
What I did not expect was the extremely dry heat to start sooner, but it did. I left an aid station just before mile 30 at 11:39am with 1 liter (34 ounces) of Tailwind. My flasks were dry 75 minutes later, with over 2 miles to go to the next aid station. Be tough. And a little smarter next time.
I took more care at the next aid station, though ice was in short supply at these smaller outposts, making heat management even more challenging. I would be seeing my crew (Javier, the kids, and my pacer Kelly) for the first time at Big Mountain Aid (mile 39).
Time to put the head down and focus. No chasing squirrels. Free speed. I put one ear bud in and listened to my daughter’s favorite pop tune (Fight Song). On repeat. Finally, the last mile to Big Mountain Aid was descending switchbacks losing 800′ of elevation. In less than 10 minutes I was eating a popsicle and being packed with ice by my amazing crew.
I was oddly running alone for several miles out of Big Mountain Aid Station. It was hot and my calculations told me that I was likely an hour behind my hopeful pace getting into Lamb’s (Mile 52). This was a little disheartening, but I stuck to the plan: Be tough. Things will get better once I get through the heat of the day.
I arrived at Lamb’s at about 5:50pm, almost an hour behind my projection. At this point I realized the heat must be affecting everyone, and that I needed to put the lost hour behind me and continue according to plan. Seeing Javier and the kids again was a big boost, but picking up my pacer Kelly was even more motivating.
I met Kelly Barber running. Then I met him running again. After meeting him a few times, I realized that he is a very giving and spectacular member of our ultra running community. I asked him to pace me late in the game, after my original pacer had to change plans. Kelly successfully completed the Mad Dog 120 just four weeks ago (learn about his food obsession in his race report here). Two weeks ago he spent the weekend helping us at the inaugural Castle Peak 100k.
We have both been busy this summer, and it had been difficult to have a full conversation about my plans for Wasatch. Kelly did a ton of course research on his own and we shared a few disjointed phone conversations. On Thursday before the race we finally had enough time to talk about my plan and my needs as a runner.
After a 10-minutes dinner break and refresh with the family, leaving Lamb’s (Mile 52) with Kelly was a game-changer. I struggled to keep up with his super-fast hike on the gradual paved climb. We settled into a pattern where he would hike about 20 feet ahead of me on the uphills. This distance gap motivated me and kept the dust down on the trail.
I had grabbed a tube of T-Relief to rub on my quads as we hiked up hill. Peter suggested this to my crew via text message, though I had already been thinking the same. After about an hour of hiking, Kelly & I decided that my breathing was holding me back, and it was time to take a puff on the albuterol inhaler. I also took 200 mg of Ibuprofen, my first NSAID since my DNF at Bryce. I wanted my legs to be ready for the downhill. And they were!
I cruised the beautiful 2-mile singletrack downhill at about a 10-minute pace. Kelly ran behind me on the downhills to keep the dust down and to let me set a pace that worked for my fried legs. That’s when I knew what had to happen. I needed to use the next huge, gradual climb to maintain / regain my downhill legs.
Miles 60 – 90: Just a little reckless.
Going into my third chuck of 30 miles, I slowly recognized a flip-flop from earlier in the day. During the daytime, my breathing was strong, but my legs were heavy. Now, I had the legs to hike uphill, but I just couldn’t get enough air. A good pacer, like a good coach, provides third-party insights that you may miss yourself.
“Is your breathing always this shallow?” Kelly asked. It had been less than 3 hours since my last albuterol, but he was right about my breathing. We stopped for the inhaler and I made a plan to keep on it every 3 hours.
A bit later, Kelly asked me if we missed celebrating the mile 60 transition to “get reckless.” We let out a “whoop” and then I was ready.
I had heard of this place called the “pain cave.” Fellow Donner Party Mountain Runner board member Chaz Sheya talks about it. Damn, he’s tough. Betsy has asked me, “Do you want this to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” Before the Wasatch 100, childbirth (two natural deliveries) was the biggest physical challenge I had experienced.
I had never voluntarily entered the pain cave (childbirth being quite involuntary). My very sensible central governor didn’t seem to allow it. But I was getting an idea of how to do it. For anything downhill to flat, I had to find a pace that my breathing would allow, and then push through whatever pain happened with my legs.
There was space to enter the pain cave, and I wanted in. This image would help me each time we encountered runnable terrain. Each time we crested a climb, I would take some seconds to gather my courage, then announce the opening of the cave door with an audible creaking sound (Kelly said it reminded him of the B-52’s – like this).
I wanted this to be the hardest thing I ever did. I wanted a “Pain PR.” Each runnable section I asked myself, “Am I there yet? Is this more difficult than childbirth?” I used music when I needed to. I tested myself and we passed other runners. The night felt pleasantly cold and we blew through aid stations to prevent getting chilled.
The last 3 miles into the Brighton Aid Station (mile 75) are downhill pavement. I ran those miles at a 9-minute pace, buoyed by my final opportunity to see Javier on course. Javier greeted us outside and I spent less than a minute at this indoor aid station. He told me the three lead ladies were just barely ahead. I told him that I didn’t care about that, but that was a bald-faced lie. I did care. I just didn’t know what I could do about it.
Next up was one big climb to the high-point of the course, almost 10,500 feet. I had thankfully been able to recon this section, to know that the descent was steep, rocky, dusty, and barely runnable on fresh legs. I told Kelly that we didn’t need to worry about pace here. It was gonna take a while, but we just had to plow through it safely. My breathing was labored, but I knew everything would improve once we dropped in altitude. And it did!
The Last 10 Miles: Leave it all on the trail
We finally arrived at the part of the race that simultaneously scared me and exhilarated me. What would happen? I couldn’t wait to find out myself.
We had stopped briefly for some on-trail maintenance (I don’t remember what… maybe a gear change or inhaler break). It was just a minute, but in that short time, my legs became cold and rigid and the next attempt at running was brutal. Disappointment and doubt clouded my brain. Forcing the legs to work was crucial to a solid finish.
I knew that we had passed mile 90, but Kelly’s watch was reading a little different, and he hadn’t caught on yet. It was time to “leave it all on the trail.” Only I wasn’t ready. This part of the race is a blur in my head.
At some point I noticed that Kelly had his phone out. “Are you texting Javier?” I asked. No, he was cuing up the song we had planned to kick off the last 10 miles. Honestly, I can’t even remember what song that was now! But it worked, my legs warmed up, and we followed it up with more heavy metal in the form of AC/DC’s Back in Black.
I finally allowed myself to start calculating finish times. My original estimate was 25.5 hours. I knew that I had lost an hour to the heat of the day. It seemed like I should still be able to make 26.5 hours, but it would be so, so difficult. I went over the math in my head multiple times. To be done by 7:30am. That’s what I wanted. I told Kelly and I knew that he would hold me to it.
We left the last aid station (mile 93.9) at 6:17am. “Just 10k to go,” Kelly encouraged me. The breaking daylight and excitement of passing the final aid station gave me a shot of adrenaline. I used a Betsy mind trick: “Imagine you are going out for a run around Donner Lake and you are just a bit tired from running long yesterday.”
I put the single earbud back in and we enjoyed some easy downhill cruising on a dirt road. I saw two runners at the bottom of the hill and I informed Kelly that we were “going fishing.” It was a man and a woman. We had no way to know pacer from runner, but I had it in my mind that I was just passing another dude on the course.
Regardless, I had my time goal in mind and the course flattened to an odious gravel road. I needed to cover the next 4 miles in less than 50 minutes. I struggled to run even the slightest incline.
I think Kelly said a few things to me, but I’m not sure what. As my tunes blasted in my ear, I informed him: “I am not here. I am deep in the cave.”
Two miles to go according to my Garmin and I was frustrated that I couldn’t see any sign of a finish. I convinced myself that it was OK to reset my time goal, but Kelly wouldn’t relent. We hit paved road. I took heart that this meant the end was near, but I still couldn’t see it.
We approached a spectator at the final intersection. He thought I was his daughter approaching. The third place woman. The woman runner behind us was not a pacer. She had been the third place woman. I unknowingly passed the third place woman at about mile 96.
With this new knowledge, I ran the final half mile on pavement to the finish chute, completing the final 10k in 70 minutes. I recorded a 100-mile PR of 26:26:57. In those last two hours, I also accomplished a “Pain PR.” Finishing the Wasatch 100, on the whole, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
As I publish this report, Betsy Nye is about to finish the Tahoe 200. Ultrarunning takes a village, and I’m so grateful for my village, especially:
Javier, Clara and Alex: you are the reasons that I get to do this ~ your love, support and admiration make it all possible
Mom and Dad: my biggest cheerleaders
Kelly: the most generous, fun and demanding of pacers
Betsy: my mentor, my inspiration, and my best friend
Peter (Run on Dirt): my coach and dear friend who, like a literary editor, can “suggest to me, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what I want to do myself.”
Jen (Full Circle Movement): another dear friend who keeps me running and repairs the damage before and after each race
Dana (Ultra U Fitness): for the delightful conversation and perspective on Elk Kings last month
Pete B: because I knew he was watching from home ~ it made passing other runners even more fun
Jenelle and Gretchen: because I aspire to their level of awesomeness
All the Castle Peak 100k runners and volunteers: your strength and energy inspire me
Julie Walker and Jason Walenta: I ran with your spirits and the memory of your strength and courage