Six weeks ago was the first time I seriously considered attempting a 100-mile trail run.
I’d just run the Pikes Peak Ascent and performed far better than expected, and the next day I hopped in my rental car and headed to Leadville, Colo., to catch the end of the Leadville Trail 100. My friend Laurie was running, and although I didn’t make it in time to see her cross the finish line — she’s too darn fast! — I witnessed enough of the spectacle and the stunning scenery to whet my appetite.
Yes, maybe if my training goes well I’ll sign up for this race in 2013, I thought.
Fast forward to last Friday and Saturday, and my desire to do a 100-miler pretty much disappeared.
I was in Logan, Utah, crewing and pacing my friend Nick for the Bear 100-Mile Endurance Challenge. Laurie — his girlfriend — was there, too, as the better half of our crewing/pacing team.
Some quick background info before we go any further:
— The Bear is considered to be one of the toughest 100-mile trail races in the United States because of its rugged terrain and incessant climbs and declines.
— Nick had done two previous 100s — the relatively easy Rocky Raccoon in Texas, and one of the hardest in Leadville. Neither compare to Bear other than the same mileage.
— As for me, my legs hadn’t carried me more than 18 miles in a single day prior to Bear.
To sum it all up, we expected this race to be extremely demanding of all of us, Nick and crew/pacers alike.
Still, while I anticipated it being a truly epic experience — and it was — I didn’t expect it to be so damn humbling.
Heading into Bear, I was a little concerned that our crew/pacing team consisted of just Laurie and I. A third person would have been ideal.
I had no doubt in Laurie’s abilities as she’d done this many times before and just ran Leadville on a busted foot. In addition to being an awesome person to spend hours with at a race, I knew I’d learn plenty from Laurie about how to crew a 100-miler.
My concern was in my abilities. I knew Laurie would show me the ropes about most of the duties, but Nick needed me to do a PR distance of about 20 miles as a pacer. It’s what I committed to, but a left foot injury from Pikes Peak had shut my training down for most of a month leading up to Bear. The foot healed after a few weeks, and it had handled the 18 miles of running/hiking that I put on it two weeks earlier at the Hawk Hundred, but that was on much kinder terrain than Bear.
I put on a good face for Nick in the weeks leading up to Bear and made sure to talk up how great the foot was feeling, even though it was far from perfect. I didn’t want to give him any reasons to panic when he had his own race to worry about.
The night before the race, in a truly unexplainable turn of events, Laurie went to take a shower and returned with a large bump and bruise on the side of her foot. The mysterious sixth toe that Laurie sprouted right before Leadville had returned.
Nerves immediately set in. Who knew how this would pan out? At that point I told myself I’d be doing my first marathon the next day … at The Bear … in the mountains … at The Bear … with no rest beforehand … at The Bear.
Sweet dreams. Tomorrow’s going to be intense.
The rental house was buzzing with activity by 4 a.m. as everyone was up early, packing and snacking on breakfast before departing for the starting line. We arrived at the start by 5 a.m. and had plenty of time to relax, chat with other runners and get Nick and Becca checked in before the 6 a.m. start. Jeremy showed up for the start, and he informed us his wife had given him the O.K. to spend the night helping us crew and pace. It was like Laurie and I had been given a life raft! We had a third crew member, and just in time!
The race began nonchalantly with the 250 runners packed together on a neighborhood street and the race director yelling, “See ya! Goodbye!” The runners hollered and took off uphill by the glow of their headlamps. After about a block, they made a right turn and hopped onto single-track trail for a 13-mile uphill climb.
The race was under way. The adventure had begun.
Laurie and I headed back to the house to grab a couple more hours of sleep, and then packed up the truck, ran a few errands and headed to the first aid station at about 20 miles. We were on pace to arrive on time — even with a herd of cattle blocking traffic for a few minutes — but Nick was cruising faster than expected. His hill training in Colorado paid off as he crushed the first climb, and then coasted the next seven miles to the aid station. Thanks to the cattle delay, Nick beat us to the station by a couple minutes. No worries, though. We arrived shortly, and he was feeling great. We reloaded his pack, he changed socks and headed out.
Nick had another 10 miles before we’d see him again, so Laurie and I grabbed lunch at Great Harvest Bread Co. in downtown Logan, then bought $75 more in Roctane gel from Sports Authority and headed to the next aid station.
Record heat was setting in on the Bear 100 — upper 70s or low 80s — by the time Nick rolled into the 29.9-mile aid station. Most of the course was exposed to the sun, and the heat was cooking him. He was still going strong, but was starting to feel the heat. Laurie had everything set up and ready for Nick when he arrived. The chair she’d purchased — including a back pad — was ready, along with bags of food and medical supplies, energy drink and plenty of water. Within a few minutes Nick was reloaded, patched up and on his way.
Seven miles later, Nick’s pace had slowed considerably. A combination of heat, blisters and achy knees were ravaging his race. I refilled Nick’s hydrapack and supply of gels while also taking notes of the other details Laurie was tending to — patching blisters, mixing energy drinks and pestering Nick with questions to monitor his health. This crewing thing is complex!
Laurie had two surprises ready for Nick upon his arrival, though. One was a wet T-shirt she’d soaked in a nearby stream to wrap around his head. The second was that she was ready to pace. Sore foot and all, she jumped in for the next eight miles at a point when Nick was more than ready for some company.
I took the keys, hopped in the truck and headed to the next aid station hoping that I wouldn’t get lost. Within 15 minutes I reached the next station at the 45-mile mark. While setting up the chair and bags of supplies, I tried to replicate how Laurie had done everything. With plenty of time to spare, I changed and loaded up my hydrapack. A day of crewing had made me antsy, and I was ready to jump in a bit early to pace.
Time for that first marathon!
ON THE TRAIL
Nick was still struggling when he and Laurie arrived at the 45-mile aid station. He was dehydrated, fatigued, sapped by the sun, and his knees were suffering on the downhill segments.
Shortly after the next 6.6-mile stretch began, Nick began feeling better. We were in the shade and had plenty of tree cover. Plus, most of it was uphill, and he was crushing the climbs. We settled into a steady pace and cruised most of the way. As darkness set in, we arrived at the 51-mile aid station at a brisk jog.
At that point, we pulled out headlamps, hats, gloves and long sleeves. Temperatures had plummeted into the 40s, and they’d dip below freezing in the middle of the night. The next 10 miles took three hours, even with a brief wrong turn factored in. Nick felt good for most of it, and I was riding on adrenaline. At one point I radioed ahead to Laurie at the aid station and told her I thought I could go all night.
Nick knew better. I’m sure Laurie did too.
After three hours on the trail, we arrived at mile 61.5. It was frigid. Nick was shivering and huddled under a sleeping bag at the aid station while Jeremy grabbed him some soup and Laurie treated his blisters. I spent most of the break scarfing down Pringles and soup, and hopping around trying to stay warm. My legs still felt great — but that was about to change.
Nick and I departed the aid station at midnight, but after a quarter of a mile Nick sent me back to catch Laurie and grab his hoodie. He was shaking from the cold, and his condition was deteriorating rapidly. I booked it back and found her as she was shutting the doors to the truck. I darted back out of the aid station and caught up to Nick at a river crossing. We paused while he bundled up, and then moved on.
Maybe it was the extra warmth provided by the jacket, or perhaps it was his appetite for climbs, but Nick quickly regrouped and hit his stride as we began about a two-mile climb. He hammered the hill and I stayed right with him. Soon the trail smoothed out and we marched ahead through the night. Both of us were doing fine until about mile 65 when an endless downhill began. Nick had suffered on the downhill segments all night, and this time I did too.
By 2 a.m. the adrenaline rush was long gone and the record mileage caught up to me. My legs were trashed and there was a sharp pain in my right ankle. I kept my mouth shut about all of it, though, because the last thing Nick wanted to hear from a pacer was complaints about leg pain. Heck, he’d already done 45 more miles than me.
The final stretch was on a rocky, rugged road, and it was particularly frustrating because the location of the aid station had moved just days before the race. We didn’t really know exactly how long we had to go until the aid station, only that it would be there … eventually.
We arrived at the aid station at 3 a.m., and Laurie and Jeremy were waiting with food and a sleeping bag for Nick. Jeremy was taking over from here. I was done.
The next few hours were a blur. Jeremy went from mile 70 to mile 85 with Nick. Laurie and I did some napping and some crewing during that time, but I was too groggy and sore to be of much help. Laurie did most of the work.
At mile 85, Jeremy took off and Laurie hopped back in to pace Nick the rest of the way. The sun was up, Nick was feeling better — except for his knees — and there was no question he would finish.
I met Nick and Laurie at the 92.5-mile aid station. I had hashed browns and Gatorade waiting for him, and he was in and out quickly. The finish line wasn’t far. As they headed back down the trail, I hopped in the truck and headed to the finish at Bear Lake in Fish Haven, Idaho.
Nick rolled through the finish in 31 hours, 54 minutes.
The smile on his face masked the agony his legs were enduring even as he laid in the grass basking in the sun.
The quote Nick repeated numerous times on the trail, as well as at the finish line, was “This is really hard.”
Talk about an understatement.
I fully expected Nick to be hurting after the race. He’d been awake for 36 hours, and he covered 100 miles in less than 32 on some of the most rugged trails in the United States.
At the same time, I could only imagine how much pain Nick was feeling as he hobbled like an elderly man. I only went a quarter of the way with him, and my legs felt destroyed. How he and his fellow finishers made it all the way baffles me.
I’ve endured some tough physical challenges — most recently running the Pikes Peak Ascent and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro — and neither comes close to the pain and fatigue I felt pacing at The Bear.
I returned home to Kansas City in awe of Nick and his fellow finishers for their ability to conquer The Bear, and completely humbled by my own experience.
I learned so much about 100-milers from Nick and Laurie, and I had an experience that “epic” only begins to describe. I’d love to do it again.
I also returned home with some doubts about whether I want to do a 100-miler myself. Six weeks ago it seemed possible and somewhat appealing. After The Bear, it seems completely insane. Maybe one of these days I’ll do one — perhaps Leadville 2013 — but first I have some other distances to take care of. I put in my first “unofficial” marathon at The Bear. I need to find another race to make it official.
Check out Nick’s race report here.