Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wrap up - the long version . . .

I was up before the alarm went off at 4:45. Having gone to bed at 9, I actually got a lot more sleep than usual before these things. It helped that the start line was 200 yards from the hotel room. I did my usual pre-race shower and actually was able to use the facilities. Twice. Mentally, I went over everything I had done up to that point, including the night before. I had pasta alfredo and grilled chicken for dinner, eaten pretzels and other salty snacks like a fiend all day, and couldn’t even count the number of cups of water I drank which led to the same number of night time trips to the restroom.

At 5:30, I woke up Erica and walked over to the check-in and gave them my name. I had weighed in the night before at 210, down 15 pounds from Wasatch. And that was after all the snack binging. After a few minutes, we wandered as a group out to the start line. The shadow of Fred's Mountain loomed in the darkness as first light barely started to filter through the pre-dawn. We all knew that soon enough, we would become all to familiar with every step up to the top. Erica took a few start line photos as we milled about nervously in the chill air.
Yours truly, ready for a day or two of ass kicking.

The course was a loop course. Each loop consisted of 3 parts. The first was a climb up Fred's Mountain, a 1900 foot climb in 2.8 miles made up of steep slippery pitches followed by short flatter periods of recovery. The second loop was Mill Creek, in which, after a short climb, you descended 1600 feet or so on single track through aspen and pine forests. You then made up 700 feet of that on a 3.3 mile paved climb, followed by rolling hills which gradually led you upwards followed by about a 900 foot climb over a mile before a final long sharp drop back to the base area. The final loop was Rick's Basin, a series of gradual climbs and descents through fields strewn with wildflowers and aspen stands with views of Mt. Moran dominating the landscape.
At 6, with little fanfare, we were off up Fred's. The day before Erica and I had taken the chairlift to the top and hiked down to get a feel for what I was in for. Actually, upon arrival at the Grand Targhee resort on Wed. I had tried to climb to the top, but got on the wrong trail and ended up on a nice peak across the valley. Be that as it may, I knew the climb had several steep pitches of 100 yards, followed by more mellow climbing. The key was to power through these steep stretches and recover on the rest of the climb. On the way up the grind, I fell into conversation with Ryan. Our pace was easy but steady. We talked about football, about God, about raising kids. A pretty far ranging discussion about everything for being in the middle of a very long race. About 3/4 of the way up, someone yelled, "Turn around!" I spun around to see the majesty of Grand Teton and the surrounding mountains aglow in the first pink dawn. Certainly worth slowing down for. Looking back at the Teton's on the initial Fred's climb. About 5 minutes from the top on the first lap.

Finally, the rocky road made a final turn to traverse the side of the mountain and under the chairlift, with a final steep switchback to the top. Once there, the buffet was set out. Grabbing a quick banana and handful of Cheezits I was running down the mountain. Ryan went to hit the porta-john, and I leaned forward, letting gravity carry me down the mountain. I ran hard but watched my step. I had seen Erica take a tumble hiking down the day before, and before the race was over, I would see double digit wipeouts on the slippery gravel inclines, including a kid taking a head over heels roll. At about this time, the 50 milers started on the course, and I got to see every one of them as they began what we had just finished. Many were even running up the slope. I gave everyone some encouragement but saved some good words to a runner I had just met, a Gator fan living in Atlanta - Lane, which would be repaid in spades later on. I put my head down and concentrated on my footing. Suffering only a few missteps, I made it back to the base aid station in about 1:15. Stopping only to strip off my vest and light, I attacked the Mill Creek section.

It started with a 400 foot climb over about a mile or so. It seemed pretty easy after Fred's, and I had already run it as part of my misadventure in attempting to scout the first climb on the previous Wednesday. There was a single track traverse of about 400 yards, and then a bombing downhill on double track. Towards the bottom was set up two gatorade style water jugs, so after a quick refill, I ran hard all the way to the bottom where the double track went through a cattle gate and became rolling, mostly downwards single track. I ran this entire section, even the uphills, using my downhill momentum to push me up the brief ups I encountered. The single track wound its way through aspen stands and sage brush fields. The track was mostly cambered with difficult footing, but I soon found myself with company in the form of a runner from Washington DC. We scooted down a few switchbacks and out onto Teton Canyon road, a dirt road that led directly into the heart of the Teton wilderness. We headed the other direction, towards an RV .7 miles down the road that made up the next aid station. I expected to see Erica here, but was about 15 minutes ahead of my best projected time. I stopped there briefly to get a banana and Cheezits and off I went onto the pavement for the 700 foot climb.

The traverse to the long drop into the Mill Creek basin.

Coming into the aid station at the bottom of the paved climb.

This ended up being my strongest section throughout the race. I found I could get into a fairly good rhythm and keep it up. There were several switchbacks which allowed me to cut lines to curves to save some time, although my head was on a swivel for cars. There were also marvelous views of the Tetons. About ten minutes in, Erica came driving by, disappointed she had missed me at the station. I asked her to meet me above and put my head down to keep climbing. As I talked with the racer from DC, he revealed that he had aspirations of sub-30 hours, but he had done no aclimatizing at all and was not used to elevation. I had my doubts if he could do it, but altitude affects different people in different ways. I also was worried for myself that I was hanging with the sub-30 crowd, but didn't feel as if I was pushing it, so I decided to keep going at my pace. Soon we reached the aid station at the top of the hill where I grabbed a snack from Erica, grazed yet again, grabbing a turkey sandwich and a PBJ and headed off into the last part of the Mill Creek section.

Headed up the second and steepest switchback of the paved climb with the runner from DC.

I had heard bad things about this section but I didn't find it to be as bad as I was expecting. The trail was in poor condition, and it was rolling which made it hard to find a rhythm, but again running the shorter uphills made it go by fairly quickly. My DC companion had lingered at the aid station, so I was on my own as the trail rejoined the single track I had left a few hours before, and as I went through the cattle gate, the big climb out awaited me. I called it the hidden climb because it doesn't really show up on the descriptions of the race, only in the elevation profile. It wasn't too bad - just a steady slog. However, once you crested the ridge, there was a "bonus" climb of another few hundred feet. I say that because while you were back on the trail you went out on, this was a little side trail that took you up even further, so just when you thought you knew where you dropped in, you actually had to keep climbing a little further. A shock the first time, not so bad after that. I was able to make some good time dropping into the base aid station and then went out into Rick's Basin.
Out of the aid station and onto the rolling hills . . .
The beginning of the big climb out of the Mill Creek Basin.

Coming into the base aid station to refuel before Rick's Basin.
There wasn't much to this section. Somehow, even though you ended the same place you started, it seemed to be more climbing than dropping, including a nasty little climb towards the end to get you out of the basin. I managed to run this entire section and ended up doing the first 25 mile "lap" in 5:45, about 15 minutes ahead of where I wanted to be. I used some of that time at the aid station to get some real food in me, turkey sandwiches, and then headed back up Fred's for my second trip.
Flowers in Rick's Basin. You can see the return trail on the far hill.

This second time up was about the same as the first, which I took as a good sign. I felt about equally as strong, although this time I didn't have any company on the way up except sports radio. Thankfully, cloud cover kept it cool for the race, and my food and liquid strategy was working perfectly. I drank almost exclusively water on the course, relying on salt pills every 20 minutes and drinking Nuun, a calorie free electrolyte drink at the aid stations. I also took Gu Roctaine pouches every 45 minutes or so, and ended up eating a lot of bananas and potato soup.
View going up Fred's - about 1/4 of the way up.

On the traverse to the top. This is about 10 minutes from the end of the climb.

View from the top of Fred's. You can see the base station at the bottom of the lift.

On my way down Fred’s, I got a piercing pain in my right big toe that got worse and worse every step. Soon it was clear that there was a serious problem. I tried adjusting my gait, but with every step my toe was jamming into the end of the toe box causing excruciating pain. I had no alternative but to gut through it, which I did for the next 20 minutes before reaching the base aid station. By the time I got to the bottom, I was clearly limping. I quickly asked Erica to grab my other shoes and changed out of my expensive Mt. Masochist shoes which I had been trying and training in and went back to my cheap ass outlet Addidas shoes and headed down to the Mill Creek section again. I noticed as I changed shoes that the front of my sock had worn away against the toe box. Not a good sign. I definitely made the right decision to take the extra time.

There was nothing much eventful that happened the second time around Mill Creek, although the change of shoes helped tremendously. I kept my pace as high as I could. It helped that on the rolling hills after the paved climb, I felt a pop on my right big toe meaning the toenail had finally given way, easing the pain instantly. I could feel it flapping around in my sock, which was a little disconcerting, but better than the pain on every step that had been there before.

Typical section of Mill Creek single track.

By the end of the rolling hills, I was beginning to feel a little fatigue, but it was manageable. Pretty soon I found myself going around Rick's Basin for a second time and then working towards the halfway point. During the two previous sections, I had been swapping places with a Japanese guy and an ultra veteran named Hans. Hans, I knew, ran races almost every week, varying in distance from 50K to 100 miles. He's a complete hardass. The three of us swapped spots for a while as came around to do lap 3. As I returned to base, it was 6:45. I had completed the first two laps or 50 miles, in 12 hours, forty-five minutes which was about fifteen minutes faster than I had thought would be my absolute best case scenario. Excited, but wanting to make sure I was rested for my third trip up Fred’s, I took a few minutes to change into night clothes, putting my vest back for the climb.
Rick's Basin, the second time around.

The third time up Fred's was beginning to turn into a grind, but I knew if I just kept it up, I would put in a really good time. This was the time to focus, think about all the training I had put in, and run a race, not just survive it. With renewed energy, I made it up the final steep traverses, catching the Japanese runner and his wife who he had picked up as a pacer. On the descent, I dropped him for good, not to see him again until the finish, taking chances on the steep slopes and taking advantage of all the training I had done out at Mission Trails with hills just like these. Towards the bottom, I had run out of light, and it was time for night running mode. I pulled my little blue flashlight out of my pocket for the final pitches down to base.

At the bottom, I realized that it was going to be a warm night, relatively speaking, and I decided to stay in short sleeves and a baseball hat all night. It ended up being a very good decision. I also realized, as the OU - BYU game faded into the night, that it was time for the Ipod Shuffle and put the radio away, for good, as it turned out. With Art Bell as my companion, I said good bye to Erica who was headed to bed, and I headed out into the Mill Creek section. I was stopped about a half mile up by a coughing spasm that turned into dry retching. Bits of phleghm pellets came flying out of my throat and literally bounced like superballs off the packed fire road. I am assuming that this was from the dust I inhaled, and I gravely hope that I never see anything the likes of that again.

I ran as fast as darkness would allow. The footing on the trail was very difficult but I had practiced night running and was able to keep it going at a decent pace. It was on this section that I first felt some pain in the back of my knee. As I pushed it down towards Teton Creek Road, it got worse and worse, but because of the nature of the trail and the darkness, it didn't slow me down relatively speaking as I could only go so fast, and soon I was through the aid station at the bottom of the paved hill and making good time up the paved climb, where I passed a few more runners although got passed once myself. As I began the rolling hill section, I realized that I didn't have too much left. I was actually looking forward to the long climb where I put in some running, trying to empty the tank while I still had the will to do so. The full moon cast out long shadows through the trees, and a few raindrops fell as the night lengthened. While I had meesed up taping the Gators game, I had the Chargers game from the night before and listened to that to help pass the time.

Coming back down to the base aid station, I went right out into Rick's Basin. As I went out, Hans was coming back in from an aborted start at Rick's to change shoes. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had seen the last fellow hundred miler I would see for the rest of the race. It was about 2 AM. Hans was the first runner I had seen in 2 hours, and I would not see another until the first trail marathoner passed me some 6 and a half hours later.

It was now that I had my lowest moment of the race. I felt completely outside of my body, like I was watching myself run instead of experiencing it. I couldn't feel my feet hitting the ground. It was nice in a way because it kept me from suffering, running in this dreamlike state. My whole body felt like it was at the dentist’s office. On the top of one of the rises, a deer stood silently watching me run past her. I stopped for a minute to watch her, then kept going when she bounded out of site. I realized my good time was in danger of slipping away unless I refocused. I started slapping myself in the back of the neck and pinching the inside of my arms as I ran, trying to get it back together. I didn't really feel like myself again until I came out of the basin and into the aid station where I didn't dare say a word about it to any of the aid people. I was not going to get pulled now. It was 3:30 AM. I was done with 75 miles in about 21 and a half hours, the last lap taking 8 and a half hours, which was about what I was expecting with the dark.

I took a few moments to sit down and pull myself together. I ate some pizza, took some mouthwash, and drank some Coke. Giving myself a mental once over, I felt pretty good considering what I had been through. If I could just keep up the pace, when the sun came out, which was about 2 hours away, I should be able to pick up the pace and have a shot at even breaking 30 hours, something that I thought would have been impossible. With a deep breath, I launched myself up Fred's for the last time just as the clock passed 4 AM.

I made a nice slow steady progress and eventually made it to the top without stopping, meaning I had done the climb 4 times without taking any breaks, one of my main goals for the race. I surprised the aid personnel on top who had all been sleeping. As I announced myself, they all jumped up and scrambled to get me whatever I wanted. I was quizzed about how much salt had I eaten, how much had I been drinking, etc. They sent me down the trail, where I had to make a quick pit stop, which went much better than could be expected, then down Fred's the final time. It was here that I realized that something was wrong. I literally could not run downhill. I couldn't put any weight on my left leg without searing pain behind my right knee. Before it had been an annoyance, but now I knew I had a problem. As light began to filter through the scattered pines, I hiked as fast as I could to the bottom.

Going through the base aid station, stopping only long enough to shed my vest and light, morning broke cloudy and windy. I ran with soup in hand up the climb to Mill Creek, figuring that if running downhill was going to be difficult, I could at least take that energy and try to run uphill. I could only go in stretches, but in between I pushed hard on my hiking. Coming to the start of the long downhill, I tried again to give it a go, but the pain stopped me in my tracks. It was no good. Resigning myself that 30 hours was no longer possible, I hiked as fast as I could, running a few steps here and there when I could, but paying for it dearly every time I did. By now I was listening to Edgar Allen Poe which clashed with the bucholic beauty of late summer in the Tetons, but yet kept me alert and moving forward, head on a swivel for ravens or a cask of amontillado.

View of the Tetons from where the Mill Creek Trail meets Teton Canyon Road. Ready for breakfast!

At the bottom at last, I saw Erica who had just missed me at the bottom of Fred’s. Glad to see a friendly face, I sat down at the aid station for a quick breakfast of French toast and sausage which hit the spot. However, trying to get up from my chair, my knee locked, and I was barely able to get up. That worried me, and I realized that if I wanted to finish, I needed to go conservative for a while. With my sore knee now bothering me vaguely even on the uphill, I hunkered down for the paved climb, which went as well as any of the three times that preceded it. It was here that I began to be passed by the trail marathoners who had started at 7. Every one of them gave words of encouragement as they passed, remarking at what a hardass I was for doing a hundred miler. This was exactly what I needed to hear, and after each one left me in his or her wake, my pace would pick up for a few steps spurred by their energy.

I figured at the top I would give my knee a break, so I sat down and ate some bacon, but getting up again was much more difficult than even the bottom of the hill, and I could not extend my knee for at least 10 minutes after leaving the aid station. I knew that was my last sit, and was glad that I only had about 10 miles to go. Shortly after this, I was passed by a trail marathoner who took a nasty spill. I helped her up, dirty but unbroken and off she went. Finally reaching the base of the climb out of Mill Creek, I looked at the time and saw that breaking 31 hours was still possible if I could pull any downhill speed at all. Knowing this, I put some Frank Zappa on the Ipod and tried to attack the hill as best I could. I actually passed a couple of trail marathoners, and pulled them up the hill in my wake. Coming to the descent to the base aid station, they left me behind, and I realized that I could not run downhill even a single step. I had used up my emotional kick to pull me as fast as I could up the hill, and even my reserves were now spent. Looking at the time, I knew that it wasn’t enough, and that 31 hours was likely out of reach as well. I settled into a rhythm to ensure that I would finish without hurting myself to the point that I would be forced to drop.

Finally I came on the base station for the last time. I did not stop, giving Erica my pack and grabbing my Gator shirt on the fly. I knew if I sat, I literally might not be able to stand up with my knee. Making one last attempt to run, I realized now that my knee wouldn't even let me run uphill, so I hiked as fast as I could. I managed to keep up a good pace and had put on my running music, but I was ready to be done. It was frustrating being limited. I was able to give it a push the first mile to mile and a half, but soon fell back into a steady pace, completely spent. The alpine heat that we had escaped the day before was bearing down on the back of my neck, and I quickly went through the bottle I had. At the base of the last climb, I passed Chirag, a 100 miler who had trained entirely in Florida, mostly on stairmasters. He was finishing his second lap, having been felled by altitude. I admired that he had come back out after a nap to finish as much of his journey as he could, and his pacer was by his side helping him along. I gave them a quick pat on the back and a good word and struggled up the last climb.

Trail through Rick's the last time through . . .

Finally, I was on the dirt road to base and could hear the finish line. As I emerged from the final Aspen stand, I stumbled down the grass hill to the finish, with the announcer saying "Here comes another 100 miler!" There was a loud round of applause, and I let the emotions of my finish take over as I started to shake crossing the line. One of the race directors put the medal around my neck while the other shook my hand and gave me my buckle, which always cracks me up. I had finished in 31:18, almost 2 hours better than my best goal time I had allowed myself to consider. It was good for 11th overall, which given the number of entrants isn't near as impressive as it sounds, but was easily my best finish even percentage-wise in an ultra to date.

At a crawl down the last hill . . .

About 5 minutes after the finish. Still living off of endorphins. Wait for it . . . Wait for it . . .

OK, they're gone. Ow, ow, ow! Contemplating the act of getting into the tub. It would take a while.

So, overall, the run was a tremendous success. I regret that I suffered an injury that took sub-30 or 31 hour times from me, as I still felt decently strong over the last 30 miles or so, but perhaps that injury was caused by my speed on the first 70 miles, so who knows. I could not get treatment for knee after the race, and it is still very sore today, meaning I can't even extend my knee half of its normal range of motion. As for my toe, the nail is barely on, being held by the skin cuticle, and a blister the size of my thumb has formed at the base, allowing me to see the outline of the base of the nail. Needless to say, it’s a matter of time before that goes.

A tremendous thanks to Erica who was out there almost the entire race at every aid station making sure I had what I needed and who helped me throughout the week making sure I was rested and ready and who shepherded me back through the multiple airports on the way back to San Diego, making only a few wheelchair jokes and stepping on my toe only a few times. Also, thanks to those to who sent texts or calls or thoughts my way while I was out on the course. Every little bit helped, and I needed every one of them.

Was all the time, sacrifice, and pain worth it? Damn straight. To run a strong race reflecting the amount of training and work that I have put in has been tremendously rewarding. Thanks to all who have followed along and helped along the way. I could not have done it without all of you.
As for what's next, well we'll wait and see . . .


  1. Congratulations BJ!! Great report, and cool pics--I want to go! And what an impressive, tough run! I was most impressed in your report by your ability to stay focused for 30 some hours, despite everything you experienced--that's something else! You are the man!

  2. Very well written and nice shot on the toilet at the end. I am glad Deeser was there to help.