Note: I originally posted this article on the Ultimate Directions Buzz Blog
Late last fall something bit me. It didn’t hurt, but rather it fired me up. The previous two running season (2017 and 2018) were really good ones for me that included lots of steep and mountainous100-milers. I seem to do pretty well at this kind of event and was pleased to record wins, or top-5 finishes, at races like Hardrock 100, Orcas Island 100, Bighorn 100, and Wasatch 100.
However, I distinctly remember one fine October day almost exactly a year ago, trotting down one of my favorite relatively smooth and flat dirt roads in Wyoming’s lovely Red Canyon. The gradient begs for speed, and the moderate fall weather was enticing. My casual run gradually turned into a progression run as I picked up the pace, faster and faster I cruised through the red, powdery dust of the canyon trail, until I made it back to my truck. I was sucking wind and with a smile on my face: I had just been bit by the desire to try running some “faster” races and give myself a new challenge in 2019.
Fast forward to August 2019 and I stood at the starting line of the iconic Leadville 100. Alright, I admit it is maybe unfair to call any 100-miler race as “fast”—but compared to some of the other races I’ve done Leadville is pretty speedy. I find that the starting line of 100s don’t actually provoke that much anxiety in me as in some ways, 100-mile races are fairly forgiving; you have all day (and maybe all night) to solve any problems, take care of yourself, and get the job done. I had spent the last 10-months working with former two-time Leadville 100 champion, Duncan Callahan, so I knew I was in bangin’ shape for this race.
However, even if you are fully prepped and ready these 100-mile adventures don’t always go to plan. Leadville started lovely enough with a proper Rocky Mountain dark and chilly start—and the first 25-30 miles felt rather straightforward, as they usually do. Sometime around mid-morning things started to unravel, and in hindsight I probably made some critical nutrition and hydration errors in the couple of days before the race. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I lost track of how many times I stopped to use the bathroom and became exceptionally creative about what could be used for toilet paper. After several hours of this, I finally got my stomach to calm down by not eating. 30-miles into a hundred is pretty early to stop eating, and of course I felt pretty depleted and unfocused, and ended up missing a turn and adding a couple of bonus miles before Twin Lakes, and to add insult to injury I got stung by a wasp trying to get back on course.
Making it to mile-40ish at Twin Lakes was one of my proudest moments of Leadville, as it would have been super easy to quit, give up, and try again another day. But that wasn’t the story I wanted for that day, and instead I stayed positive, let me crew rally me hard, and went out to make the most of the next 60-miles. My race didn’t get harder, but it certainly never got easier either. I picked up quite a few places on the steep and fun double crossing of Hope Pass, and then used all my “fast” running training of the last 10-months to manage a 9th place finish in 19:47.
As perhaps you can imagine, this was a finish I was proud of, but was hardly satisfied with. I wanted something more, a redo, a chance to execute another “faster’ race. As it turns out, Run Rabbit Run 100, which is part of Ultimate Direction’s Signature Races, was a mere 4-weeks later. While RRR100 is not quite as speedy as Leadville, there is still a lot of running to do. Perhaps all that running (and not enough hiking) had something to do with why I’ve DNF’d there twice in the past.
Feeling well rested, recovered, and with a much better pre-race nutrition plan, I stood on the starting line of Run Rabbit Run 100 on a beautiful September day. Maybe I was slightly more nervous for this one, as I’d never ran two 100-miles races so close together. I started out very conservative, by my standards, and plodded along all day waiting for my chance to use some of my hard-earned leg speed in the back half of the course. Maybe I had been too patient, as I was surprised to find out that I was sitting back in twelfth place at about mile 60. Once again, I excelled on the steep climbing after Olympian Hall and made my way up to 7th place and was hungry to track down more runners that were in front of me.
When I went to push the accelerator through the rolling last 20ish miles of the course things got a little blurry—literally. I thought my headlamp was starting to die in the coldness of the night and I had a tough time seeing the trail and moving efficiently. I figured once the sun came up soon I’d be ready to rev my way to the finish. But, once again I was reminded how 100-milers rarely go to plan, as once the sun came up I did not speed my way to the finish, but actually stumbled, tripped, and stuttered for the last 15-miles due to corneal edema. If you’ve never experienced corneal edema, it’s like trying to run in sunglasses that are completely fogged over. My “dimming headlamp” was actually my eyes clouding over, and once the sun came up the glare of the bright morning light was almost completely blinding.
I barely made my way to the Mt. Werner Aid Station (mile 99) where an aid-station captain tried to talk me into taking a ride to the finish line. I politely as possible told him “hell no.”
As I was getting ready to descend the last 6-miles and 4,000 feet down to Steamboat Springs the next runner passed me, leaving me out of the “money positions”. There was nothing to do but carry on, so I carefully, and slowly, worked my way towards the end. As I approached the blur of the finish line I had to ask a volunteer how to actually get to the giant blurry arch, as they make you hop across rocks over a creek to finish. My wife and another kind lady helped me across the rocks and I still almost fell in twice. Not the race I was hoping for again, but really pleased to finish in 8th place.
I learned from the Leadville/Run Rabbit Run 100-mile double that finishing an ultramarathon is always satisfying, even if it far short of your goals. I also learned that fitness is only one part of the equation as it’s often not leg speed and aerobic endurance that slows you down. It was a fun and challenging experience to run a couple of “faster” 100-miles races this year, but in 2020 you’ll be likely to find me back on the steep mountain terrain I love and am more comfortable with.