I was thrilled to once again be asked to join the voting panel for Ultrarunning Magazine's Ultrarunner of the Year. As always I find this to be an extremely gratifying yet significantly discomfiting task, causing no small amount of stress as I try to parse the various resumes and performances. For the past couple of years, I've asked guests on the podcast to help me sort things out. This year I was joined on the show by Rich Heffron and Phil Vondra, who were able to set me straight on a few things in time for me to revise my final ballot, which I present below.
As I stated last year: I continue to invite criticism by posting my ballot. I'm not quite sure why I do this, other than that it's easy content creation. I do enjoy debating the picks and hearing people's rationales for arguments for and against various decisions. As with anything online it can get a little personal or angry, but for the most part people have been good-natured and civil about it. Please continue to do so. The debate is the fun part, but only if we respect each other's opinions. Our sport covers a variety of distances, surfaces, and formats, and while these awards smush all of them together, we all value different things and have our own prejudices and biases. Which is basically just to say: keep it civil.
1. Courtney Dauwalter
2. Kaci Lickteig
3. Brittany Peterson
4. Camille Herron
5. Clare Gallagher
6. Sabrina Stanley
7. Addie Bracy
8. Katie Schide
9. Kaytlyn Gerbin
10. Camelia Mayfield
As you'll see, this is significantly different from what I had discussed with Rich and Phil. I won't say where I had ranked Camille initially, but if you listen to the show you'll find out soon enough. What I'll say here is that while I stand by my arguments for having her as low as I did--basically, that one standout performance does not make a whole season, that it should be recognized in Performance of the Year, etc.--I didn't apply that criteria strictly enough across the entire category, and I'm not sure my internal reasoning held up. Which is the point of the podcast, allowing my to realize where I might've made a mistake. I'm pretty happy with how this list wound up, though it was difficult leaving off Amanda Basham, YiOu Wang, Kathryn Drew, Taylor Nowlin, and Emily Hawgood.
Womens' Performance of the Year
1. Camille Herron's world record at the 24 hour World Championships in Albi, France
2. Courtney Dauwalter's win at UTMB
3. Maggie Guterl winning Big's Backyard
4. Clare Gallagher winning Western States (#2 all-time)
5. Sabrina Stanley winning Diagonale des Fous
I think Phil, Rich, and I had basically the same top five in order, which certainly made me feel good about these picks. Other standout performances I considered were Hillary Allen's win at Cortina, Amanda Basham's runner-up finish at CCC, Erika Hoaglund's Course record at Rio del Lago, Stephanie Case's runner-up at Ronde del Cims, and Elizabeth Northern's 3:19 at the 50K world championships.
Womens' Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Megan Laws (55 years old) 50K age-group world record (and 50M/100K AG American Records) at Desert Solstice
2. Connie Gardner (56) 18:16, win at Jackpot 100 (US Championships)
3. Pamela Champman-Markle (63) 118 miles in 24 hours at 6 Days in the Dome
4. Denise Bourassa (50) 17:01, 2nd place at Brazos Bend
5. Maria Shields (68) 100K in 12 hours at Dawn to Dusk to Dawn
1. Jim Walmsley
2. Zach Bitter
3. Pat Reagan
4. Jared Hazen
5. Tim Tollefson
6. Olivier Leblond
7. Tyler Green
8. Mark Hammond
9. Matt Daniels
10. Harvey Lewis
Jim is a likely unanimous pick for his unprecedented fourth straight UROY award; and beyond him the top half of this ballot was pretty easy for me. The bottom half could go any number of ways, and there were multiple deserving folks who got left off, including Jeff Browning, Trevor Fuchs, Drew Holman, Cody Reed, Jason Schlarb, and Mario Mendoza.
Mens' Performance of the Year
1. Zach Bitter's 100 mile world record at 6 Days in the Dome
2. Jim Walmsley's 50 mile world record at Project Carbon X
3. Jim's astounding course record at Western States
4. Olivier Leblond's 3rd place at 24 hour World Champs
5. Pat Reagan's 12:21 at Brazos Bend 100 (US Champs)
The top three I'm assuming are basically written in stone, though the order is up for reasonable debate. Other notable performances were Tim Tollefson's win at Laveredo, Jared Hazen's runner-up finish at States, Jim's CR at Santa Barbara Nine Trails, Seth Ruhling's 5:38 win at JFK, and Zach Ornelas and Austin Bogina both running 2:50:xx for 50K at Caumsett.
Men's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Steven Moore (51) 18:14 (age group CR) at Western States
2. Don Winkley (80) 327 miles in 144 hours at Across the Years
3. Jean Pommier (55) 14:47 (age group national record) at Jackpot 100
4. Joe Fejes (53) 532 miles at 6 Days in the Dome
6. Ruperto Romero (55) overall win at Angeles Crest
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
13 April. When the Albany Running Exchange announced a Half Marathon along the rail trail, they expected a few hundred runners to show up. The downhill course from the foothills of the Helderbergs to the banks of the Hudson River could yield some extremely fast times, but limits were generous enough to accommodate walkers and first-time runners. The makings of both a classic race and a community event attracted more than two thousand to the start line. Busy running a water station, I missed Jean pass through in the crowd on her way to a fast time and third in her age group (she then cycled 20 miles to meet me at Clayton's baseball game). I suspect that the event will accommodate several hundred more next year.
25 April. Back in DC for a baseball game and a visit to the Holocaust Museum, we found ourselves on an impromptu treasure hunt. Clayton had loaded his phone with apps to locate available electric scooters, so Jean and I rented city bikes and walked for miles all over the city with him: to a school where a faculty member had perhaps expected to find his scooter waiting for him at the end of the day, in the garbage-smelling bowels of L'Enfant Plaza, and the parking lot of a housing project west of the Navy Yards. We scooted and pedalled all over the city; I was tempted to set off from Georgetown along the C&O towpath, now the easternmost section of a new transcontinental rail trail.
26 April. Retreating to the hotel from a fierce downpour on the National Mall, I dried off and started "Beyond a Boundary" by C.L.R. James. He suggests that the insecurity of English Puritans amidst social breakdown after the dissolution of the monasteries led to feelings of fear and self-defence. James describes these traits in his own family in Trinidad, but I was struck by the connection to the US which has always struck me as a Puritan country. It is, after all, where Puritans went to escape religious oppression and to do some oppressing of their own instead. Could emotional and political life in the US derive partly from threats to society and the economy in parts of mid-16th century England? Right or not, it struck me as a lovely idea.
|Skytop in the murk.|
photo: Bill Winter
4 May. Mohonk Preserve grew around a mountain hotel, started by a Quaker family, which from the 1890s hosted several series of conferences. One series led to to today's Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, while others were less influential: in recommending the assimilation of Native Americans, and in failing to invite African Americans to gentlemanly discussions of what they most needed after the failure of Reconstruction. The Rock the Ridge challenge raises a large amount of money for the Preserve, and a generous time limit accommodates people who would not normally attempt to run or hike 50 miles along hilly carriage roads. Despite the cost of entry and sponsorship donations, several hundred entrants make this one of the country's largest races at this distance. My goal on this cool, misty day was to run every step of the course. Puffing my way up cardiac hill, the steepest part of the course, I had a mutually taciturn encounter with blogmeister Jason Friedman on his way back down; by the time I trotted over the finish line I had achieved my goal but Jason was doubtless long departed.
photo: Dick Vincent
20 May. Possible outcomes of the Brexit mess once seemed clear, but after this week's collapse of government authority just before the EU elections, all bets are off. Whatever pretty pass the UK comes to will be by way of anxiety over perceived decline, complacency, and nostalgia for a mythical past (I owe these to Linda Colley's 2017 Guardian article). Pragmatic, evidence-based
government—on which I and many of my generation hung our post-ideological hats—left some communities unable to adapt as the world changes fast around them. Perhaps we chose policies which neglected some needs, complacent that the "Third Way" was itself enough; in the wake of this failure comes something darker and for which there is yet to be a reckoning (and I hope Billy Bragg is right that there will be).
31 May. To better understand the nationalism that's once more in vogue, I have been re-reading Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" (the title of his memoir, "A Life Beyond Boundaries", echoes that of the C.L.R. James book I read last month). Anderson describes several attributes common to the emergence of independent countries in the last century, some of which are present today in both Scotland and Ireland. But surely a breakup of the UK will require the raw power of those imagining a united Ireland or an independent Scotland to overcome that of Unionists, many of whom are themselves merrily exerting raw power to pursue a split from Europe.
5 June. Watching an interview by Stephen Fry, part of his TV series on America, I stumbled across a lucid description of the US as a Puritan country. It also seems that Gore Vidal coined the quip about religious oppression, unattributably quoted on the Internet as "The Puritans left England for America not because they couldn't be Puritans in their mother country, but because they were not allowed to force others to become Puritans; in the New World, of course, they could and did."
9 June. A broad shoulder of Blackhead Mountain in the Catskills is named Arizona, perhaps because those who logged it in the 19th century found no water. Joe and I come here often to maintain the trail, and today we walked on a carpet of tips of Balsam fir an inch or two in length. Wind, perhaps, combined with late ice or snow? Experts at the Department of Environmental Conservation weren't sure what had caused this oddity.
16 June. On a day of repeated ascents, the summit area of Overlook Mountain above Woodstock was enveloped in pink blossoms of mountain laurel. Thinking of mountain laurel as mainly white, I had always called referred to anything pink as "mountain pink". But now I shall need to distinguish pink laurel from the pink azalea (pinxter) that also grows in the mountains.
30 June. Through a secret door into Syon Park with old friends Tom and Hanke: we had not met together for more than 30 years. Having convinced ourselves in the Orangery how to recognise Palladian architecture, we walked through wildflower meadows and together tentatively identified cranesbill—confirmed later in Tom's reference book.
2 July. For Robert Barclay Allardice, who in 1809 walked a mile in each of a thousand consecutive hours, the Banchory-Stonehaven toll road—the Slug Road—was his way to or from home on walks over epic distances in the Highlands. I started beside the site of Captain Barclay's house at Cluny; with much of the road closed for bridge repairs, a few cyclists and I had it largely to ourselves. Descending into Deeside, a sharp right turn joins the line of the much older Cryne Corse. The roads are busier hereabouts than when Barclay walked them two centuries ago, and the Deeside Way follows an indirect route up the valley between Banchory and Aboyne. Instead, my sister Stella drove me from the bottom of the Slug Road to where I could resume running along the course of Queen Victoria's railway line to its terminus in Ballater.
18 July. I sit on the ground just before 4am, licking remains of molten chocolate from my fingers, as the Vermont 100 mile run is about to start on the hottest day of the year. Like the Tevis Cup ride over California's Sierra Nevada, this was for years a horse riding event before people joined in on foot. Horses and runners follow a tortuous loop of dirt roads and trails, passing with many hours still to travel within less than half a mile of the finish. By Camp 10 Bear, to which the course returns 22 miles later, I'm reduced to a walk. Chafing and overheating due to the conditions, I was surprised that my quads had struggled with the rolling terrain. Having seen bacon work miracles in the past, I tried smoked salmon with cream cheese and lots of capers that my crew Joe and Amy had been keeping cool for me. It tasted good, and I continued to plod as far as I could before time ran out. I had bought each us a tee shirt printed with "Camp 10 Bear: a place so nice you'll visit twice", which having made it there only once I don't yet feel qualified to wear. Perhaps, since I seem to handle hot conditions less well with age, next time I'll opt for the 100K run instead.
|Looking west from the Canadian Span|
1 September. During his visit to research the life of Frances Perkins in the New York State library, Tom and I made pilgrimage to FDR's home at Hyde Park. Here, in the vein of Ballater Station's royal loo, were priceless carpets over which Churchill had doubtless spilled invective and cigar ash. The FDR library proved the main attraction; there was much to learn, not least why the price of admission includes a second day for those who can't absorb it all. I left with the strong impression that the speed with which the New Deal was enacted owed much to what Perkins had already achieved in the New York administration of Al Smith several years earlier.
8 September. Friends in Connecticut celebrated their 60th birthdays with a sixty-mile bicycle ride for their peers. We set off through Collinsville's sunny Sunday streets before climbing away from the Farmington river and splitting into two groups: fast and faster. We passed barns huge enough to be sinister: part of the local tobacco industry that for two centuries has supplied outer leaves for cigars. On two occasions we encountered what one of us called a "Google car" travelling at speed; it wasn't gathering data for online maps, but a self-driving car under test. I wonder what it thought of us.
6 October. Signs on the Massachusetts Turnpike announce the Quinebaug-Shetucket National Heritage Corridor: a region in which communities and businesses work to preserve the landscape and history of the "last green valley" between Boston and Washington DC. The Nipmuck trail marathon passes through these woods and for a while joins the course of the Old Connecticut Path, which predates European settlement. When I first took part, this was one of just four trail races in all of New York and New England. I ran them all then, but had not returned to Nipmuck for 30 years. The trail was much drier than I remembered, since the race has moved from spring to fall and several bridges have been constructed. Otherwise, little has changed; everything remains low key, as it was everywhere in those early days, and home-baked pies are still the race prizes.
13 October. While reading Jonny Muir's excellent The Mountains are Calling on hill running in Scotland, I also encountered Virginia Woolf's essay "Street Haunting" about the delights of walking in London. I was taken back to my 20s—for most young people there are roads not taken, trains missed—loving both the city and the mountains but neither committing to one nor finding a way to integrate both. While in Edinburgh I came close, perhaps, but did not live there long enough to take "the road to Swanston"—as Muir refers to the calling of the hill runner. I moved on before R.L. Stevenson's Pentlands got under my skin the way that, at different times, the South Downs, Yorkshire Dales and Catskill Mountains have done.
|Fall from Mohonk|
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
19 January. Six days ago, the "Recover from the Holidays 50K" started smoothly until, after a mere half hour, my right calf unaccountably began to tighten. It got slowly worse until, after a particularly uncomfortable downhill, I decided to go home early. Some deep tissue massage found the symptom but not the cause, and despite some remaining discomfort I was able to slowly run the hilly roads above Woodstock. Whether this will go away of its own accord, as such things sometimes do, is a cause of worry.
|The Devil's Path of the High Catskills|
Indian Head, Jimmy Dolan Notch, and southern tip of Twin
27 January. What to make of the news that the British government is making preparations, but has no plans, for martial law in the event of Brexit? A combination, perhaps, of Baden-Powell stiff upper lip with a flaccid "something will turn up". Meanwhile, life turns upside down as the British Broadcasting Corporation announces a move to Europe, while the so-called "European Research Group" wants to leave Europe as disruptively as it can: what will they call themselves then? Will Hutton warned, in 1995, of what could now be their manifesto:
- Perpetual austerity: "Swinging cuts in the welfare state could bring lower taxation."
- Low wages and job insecurity...though without immigrants, of course: "All inhibitions to the functioning of a free labour market could be removed..."
- Take back control by abandoning controls: "There will be another round of business deregulation."
- Martial law would be even better: "Any reaction to these measures could be repressed by intensified policing and an increase in the prison population."
- Toodle pip, Open Society: "The vestigial elements of public power lying outside the control of the state or the market could be removed."
- What has become the means to achieve everything else: "The country could opt out of all European institutions in order to better preserve the free market utopia."
30 January. Yesterday a New Statesman writer attempted to understand the Conservative Party's attitude to Brexit; they agree on five priorities, but disagree on their relative importance. Only two of the five, regulatory autonomy and an independent trade policy, are reasons to leave the EU; the remainder are simply containing the damage. So why does a broad church of Brexit voters, from Rochford to Rotherham, want to leave? A desire to poke the establishment in the eye does not explain the UK government's "red line" on free movement of people, which appears to be the cause of intractable difficulty regarding Ireland. A Guardian piece today leaves me considering a very reason for all of this: dislike of immigration, sometimes beneath a more genteel veneer of doing something about "those people".
4 February. In Albany's South End this morning, I was asked what I was carrying.
"Snowshoes.""Don't you need snow for those?"
"There's more snow where I started out.""Do they go fast?""No, I'm really slow on them.""I guess if you were going fast on those things you'd whup your ass."
14 February. New Scientist reports a study on the health impact of post-Brexit increases in the price of fruit and vegetables: approximately 6,000 additional deaths by 2030, and twice that with no deal. A Kantian moralist in me discounts the numbers; those in the much-bruited 52% in favour of Brexit will simply experience the consequence of what they voted for, so we should lament only 48% of those fatalities.
16 February. The Economist contrasts Shropshire's enthusiasm for Brexit with the risk of damage to its "traditional rural economy". Meanwhile, I have been listening to settings of A Shropshire Lad: poems much read in the trenches of World War I. A century later, it seems, nostalgia remains for a rural England that may never quite have existed and which one will not see in future. Over versions of "Is my team ploughing" by Ivor Gurney and Ralph Vaughan Williams I prefer George Butterworth's, if only because he retains the verses about football playing along the river shore.
17 February. 45 years ago, the Albany Winter Marathon was one of very few events in the depths of a New York winter. It offered a last chance to qualify for Boston a couple of months later, but nowadays a "BQ" time must be in the books by the previous autumn. Having met the qualifying time for 2020, I may be one of the last; participation has dwindled and the Winter Marathon may be no more. Perhaps a hard-bitten few will run the course in future years, clock or no clock.
23 February. Though my right calf had not tightened in the marathon, the ankle on my other leg hobbled me for the next two days. Simply resting had little effect, so when I took my son and a friend to ski at Gore Mountain I gently cross country skied and snowshoed to see what would happen. Since nothing got worse, I resolved to continue being active and resorted to what runners typically do when things aren't working: buy new shoes.
2 March. After seven hilly Woodstock miles in the new shoes, my ankle stopped hurting. It felt better for the next 20 miles and the rest of the day. As muscles tightened after a long climb and steep descent, perhaps some imbalance in the ankle temporarily resolved itself.
10 March. The Albany Running Exchange represents a buoyant younger wave of running in our area. At their "Tour of Guilderland" group run no-one appeared to be within 20 years of my age. It quickly emerged that I was also the slowest, though by running almost at full tilt I wheezed my part of a delightful conversation with someone out for an easy jog. After a detour through untracked inches-deep snow along the rail trail, I arrived exhausted at the organizers' house just in time for a gulp of prosecco and the last of breakfast.
|In the distance, taking the Helderberg to Hudson Rail Trail|
photo: Josh Merlis
13 March. In a 2005 book, Jean Lipman-Blumen commends us to leaders who undermine our illusions. She suggests that, predisposed to feeling superior to outsiders or to those who disagree with us, we are susceptible to leaders who exhibit behaviours such as:
"Misleading... through deliberate untruths and misdiagnoses""Maliciously setting constituents against one another""Identifying scapegoats and inciting others to castigate them""Structuring the costs of overthrowing them as a trigger for the downfall of the system they lead"
These may not be shortcomings of Theresa May. Her twin illusions, of abolishing freedom of movement and of some ill-defined national autonomy, simply could not be reconciled with the Good Friday agreement: a treaty with other countries that has established peace in Northern Ireland for 20 years. The Prime Minister has failed by evading this "valuable inconvenience", though had she confronted it the country may yet have proven unready to listen. Pro-Brexit UK has had the leadership it deserves.
21 March. Bicycling to work for the first time this year, I dismounted for a couple of patches of ice on the rail trail and on the roads in town avoided as best I could the accumulated grit, glass and potholes of a hard winter. Railway sidings beside the future course of the South End Connector trail held long trains of black fuel tankers: pipelines on wheels for transhipment onto Hudson River barges. Suspecting false representation on those labelled "Renewable Products Marketing Group", I deferred my indignation to discover that the trains carry light Bakken crude from North Dakota, tar sands oil from Canada, and ethanol from the midwest. Ethanol entails many problems when used as a fuel, but perhaps this particular labeling was accurate as far as it went; no-one had painted the tankers green with pictures of happy butterflies.
|The HAT run trail, above the mouth of the Susquehanna River|
|Van Der Zee House, built by the grandson of Storm Brant who was born at sea in 1636|
Monday, July 1, 2019
But here is the difference. Now you're trying to decide not to quit. And you stand up and move toward the starting corral to start running again. But now each step doesn't make you feel stronger. It just makes your fatigue more palpable, your achiness more acute. And no matter how much you run, you don't get any closer to the finish. The hours pass and the miles mount and the finish just remains this nebulous concept that you have a vague sense of but can never really see. All you can see is the end of the next loop and the prospect of having to go through the whole decision again about whether or not to quit. And as long as you keep deciding not to, this will go on forever. Running more doesn't get you to the finish. It just makes you run more.
The race is the brainchild of Lazarus Lake, the masochist behind the Barkley Marathons. I don't know if Laz invented the idea of a Last Man Standing event, but he's the founder of Big's Backyard, which is the unofficial world championship of the format, and the seminal event behind the worldwide series that exploded in the wake of last year's craziness. For the first several years of the event, Big's saw about 20-40 runners take part; the winner (the only finisher according to Laz, everyone else is considered a DNF) usually lasted about 26-30 hours. But in 2017, Guillaume Calmettes outlasted Harvey Lewis over 56 hours and 245 miles, and the race grew remarkably in stature. The 2018 race hit its cap of 75 entrants and became an instant classic, as five runners cracked the 48-hour/200-mile mark, and by the time Courtney Dauwalter conceded to Johan Steene--67 hours and 279 miles later--both were ultrarunning legends.
The popularity of the race exploded overnight; over 1000 folks applied for one of the 75 spots in the 2019 field. This led to the minting of the Backyard Ultra series, a collection of 17 races around the world with the same format as Big's. The winners of the ten overseas races would get "Golden Tickets" to the main event in Tennessee in October, as would the top two performances from the seven North American races. The Mountain Lakes Backyard Ultra, just over an hour from my house, was the last US race on the schedule and would be my shot to make it to Laz's backyard.
Not only is the idea a brilliant one, but in theory at least, the format seemed to suit me pretty well. Working almost exclusively nights for the past fourteen years, I've become an expert in running while sleep deprived and staying awake for long hours. To win a Backyard ultra, you don't need to be fast. You don't even really need to be much of a runner. You just need to be able to eat a lot of food and stay awake for a really long time. I was pretty sure I could do that.
|My home for the weekend|
We actually had a pretty good field for an inaugural race in a weird format. Glen Redpath, an ultrarunning legend working his way back into shape over the past few months, would be running his first Last Man Standing event; he was preparing for Big's, where he was already entered into the elite field. Glen and I have been friends for a long time--I paced him at his last WS100, in 2014--and I knew he'd be good for well beyond 24 hours. Byron Lane, a former US 24-hour team member, was there as well; I hadn't seen Byron for a few years since we raced Recover from the Holidays in 2015, but if he was fit, he could go a long way. Eric Kosek had a lot of experience going long, including a top-10 finish at last year's Tahoe 200; Glen and I thought he might be the man to watch. And then there was Michael Postaski, who had beaten me at the Mountain Madness 50K in 2017 but as far as I knew had never gone past 50 miles before.
Brian, the race director, started us off with the clang of a cowbell at 6:30pm, and Glen and I settled into an easy jog pace in the front half of the field. Within just a few minutes the road pitched up sharply and we gained about 250 feet in the first mile and change, as the road transitioned from pavement to dirt with loose rock. We crested the hill and started descending; the road split and we took the right fork for the day loop (the night loop turned left, dropped down another 200+ feet over the next 1.1 miles, then turned around and retraced itself back to the start/finish). The day loop traveled down a carriage road of cobble-sized rock before making a hard left into a winding single track trail. The footing through the trail section was quite good; there were some rocks and roots, but nothing too technical. Finding a rhythm was a bit tough with countless short and steep up and downs, but we were in no hurry, walking most of the uphills and just learning the ins and outs of the course. The race requires a balance of not running too hard but finishing each loop with enough time to recover, fuel, and mentally prepare for the next loop; my pre-race plan was to run most of my laps between 48-52 minutes and I was pleased to finish the first one in 50:18. Lap two was much the same; I focused on walking whenever I could and, instead of tracking my time over the entire loop, just ran my watch during the walking segments to see how much time I spend walking. The total was about 12 minutes of walking in another 50-minute loop, which gave me confidence that there was plenty of room for error when the laps got harder.
Our second "night loop" was our first one fully in the dark. The night loops at Big's are out-and-back on a paved, flat road; while they may not provide much mental stimulation, they also don't provide much of a physical challenge. A motivated runner, even a very fatigued one, can stumble through them in under an hour without too much of a toll on the body. We were not so lucky. Other than about two minutes of running at the beginning and the end of the "loop," we were running or hiking either uphill or downhill the entire time at a 4-5% grade. The whole lap could be run, but not without some effort, and over time, the climbing (and particularly the descents) would exact a toll. With 400-500 feet of climbing per lap, each 100 miles would entail about 11,000' of climb--not exactly UTMB, but not nothing, either.
I spent the first few night laps figuring out when I would walk and when I would run. Everyone had a different strategy. Some walked the entire uphill and raced down the other side. Others opted for a steady jog. Other hiked more than I did, but faster. As we progressed through the night, we began to stratify out, and I started seeing the same runners over and over again. Eric Kosek, who was camped out in the interloopal area right near me, would hike the first part of each uphill, then fly past me about halfway up and not be seen again. Francis Picard from Quebec would power-hike by every time I walked, with short, clipped strides. Sean O'Conner, camped out on the other side of me from Eric, would alternately finish either just before or just after me, looking very relaxed and strong, running in a short sleeve flannel top. He had a dedicated crew person there from the start, which was a nice luxury as it allowed him to rest the entire time in between laps rather than walking over to the aid station area for hot food. Byron finished each lap with mere minutes to spare, though always smiling and comfortable; I wondered if he knew something the rest of us didn't.
A little less than half of the starting field remained at 5:30am, as we returned to the day loop after nine straight night laps. I had quickly dialed in the night loops, running every one of them between 46:40 and 48:50; I had actually run three consecutive laps in 47:36. I had come through the night feeling quite strong. I battled a headache for a few laps around midnight, but Eric had given me a couple of ibuprofen and since then it hadn't been an issue. The return to the day loop was a bit of a shock. While the night laps had been a grind, they had become predictable and routine; now we had to re-learn the pacing, the splits, and how to parcel out our effort. I think most of us felt that while there was less climbing, the loops felt longer, and most of us ran a minute or two slower on lap 12 than we had on the previous laps. The field was starting to thin, as several folks had clearly made 50 miles their goal; of the 29 runners who finished lap 12, only 18 would start lap 13.
Eric was firmly in control of the race now; we were all keying off of him. Through the night, he had turned in a string of 40-42 minute laps, while most of us were several minutes behind; he followed up a 40-minute lap 12 with a 38-minute lap 13. Every time I got back to camp, he was in his chair, feet up, eyes closed, the picture of serenity. He looked ready to go all day. Several of the runners who had been logging fast laps along with Eric called it quits at this point, however. Matt Wright, a tall, muscular runner wearing a green shirt pocked with holes, was hanging tough, though he was starting to look a bit worse for the wear. He had told us that his goal was to win this race, not to qualify for Big's, but because he was hoping to impress Laz into considering him for a spot in Barkleys--an even more exclusive and more insane race than this one. Matt had been up front most of the night, logging 42-45 minute laps, but his twelfth lap was significantly slower, and his effort level seemed a little too high for what was likely still the early stages.
|Running strong at some point on day 2|
photo: Lars Klein
to the finish. I started to find the rhythm, and the loops were passing without much effort.
Eric was still out front. I was finishing many of the laps in the top three or four at this point, often second behind Eric. Sometimes Sean or Glen would finish ahead of me, sometimes behind. We chatted and joked in between laps, sharing chafing cream or Gatorade. There was still a long way to go, but we could start to see who was going to be around for awhile. Glen and I, trying to handicap the field during one of the laps, anticipated that Eric and Sean would both last at least 24 hours. Glen thought Matt might make it through on pure determination. I thought Byron might outsmart us all and still be around that long. But both Matt and Byron were gone by the start of the next loop, when our group of 15 suddenly became 8.
My friend Brian Hickey showed up at the end of lap 16 to crew me for awhile. It was good to see a friendly face, and though I was feeling pretty good and didn't really need much help, I began to lean on him more and more over the next several laps, filling up my bandanna with ice, making trips to the aid station tent for hot food, and just sharing a few words of encouragement. Our numbers had continued to dwindle, losing a couple more folks per lap, until the big shock came as we gathered in the corral to start the eighteenth hour. Eric, who had led each of the previous twelve laps and shown no sign of strain, shook everyone's hand, wished us luck, and dropped. We were down to four: myself, Glen, Sean, and Michael.
|The final four at the start of lap 19|
photo: Brian Vanderheiden
After leading several of the laps since Eric had dropped, running my customary splits, I finished lap 20 feeling a bit strung out. I recognized that I had pushed a bit too hard to make all my intermediate splits and ensure that I still met my 47-48 minute goal for the lap. I resolved to slow down for the next several laps and expend less energy. I ran with Glen the whole way, running slightly over 50 minutes, feeling very comfortable.
On lap 22 Michael went past us midway through the loop, looking fresh and strong, running with an amazingly smooth, loping gait. In a flash he was gone; back in camp Brian told me he had run 46 minutes for the lap, beating us by nearly five minutes. We could no longer pretend he was just in it to run 100 miles. At this point, he looked like the favorite.
Brian took off after lap 23, as I was expecting my second wave of crew. I had continued working with Glen through the late afternoon, though I was struggling a bit. The trail loop, particularly the "cobblestone" downhill section, was taking its toll. Mostly I was just tired of it. I was tired of climbing to the top of the hill and holding on for dear life; I was tired of the tiny little ups and downs; I was tired of Roctane. Michael and Sean were now both easily outdistancing me on each lap. My breaks in between loops were growing shorter, and I was getting irritable. With half a mile to go in lap 24 I hit the wall, hard. All three of my fellow competitors went past, and I struggled in at 54 minutes, my slowest lap yet, barely moving forward.
|Getting ready for the final day loop|
photo: Kevin Borden
The night loop, finally. I took of my Salomon S-Lab Ultras, changed my socks, and switched to my Nike Zoom Flys for the road section. I refilled my ice bandanna and pounded more Coke. Always, more Coke. I had barely survived the last two day loops; without Glen to follow I wouldn't have made it. But now night was here. Thirty hours or more finally seemed possible again.
I made it about 150 meters, just out of sight of camp, before the thought of having to keep going overwhelmed me, and I stopped, right in the middle of the road. The other three guys kept rolling and I was almost immediately alone. I bent over, hands on knees, and studied my shoes for a minute. The prospect of the climb didn't bother me. It was running downhill. I couldn't bear the thought of running two giant downhills per lap from now on. It was too much. I straightened up, ready to walk back to camp and quit. I thought about what I would say to my friends, who had set up tents and were preparing to camp for a long night. How could I explain that I just didn't want to do it anymore? I couldn't do that. I'd at least have to walk the loop. I'd time out, and then it would be over, but I owed them at least that.
I checked my watch. Three minutes gone by. I didn't really have any designs on finishing the loop in time, but I needed to start moving. I started walking. God, I thought, walking this loop is going to take forever. Maybe I could make it a little shorter. I shambled into a slow jog. Huh, that doesn't feel so bad. Up the tempo a little bit, to a full-fledged trot. All of a sudden, my legs were back. Suddenly I had a new life.
I caught Sean and Michael at the top of the hill. They did not try to hide their surprise. "Wow," said Sean, "we thought you were done."
"So did I," I replied.
I fairly flew down the hill, caught Glen shortly past the turnaround, and we powered up the hill together. Sean caught us near the finish, but Michael crossed around a minute after us. After looking indomitable on the trails he suddenly looked a bit vulnerable. I wondered if my little resurrection had shaken him.
After feeling so solid on the past two laps, I've now resigned myself to the fact that this is going to be it for me. None of these guys are ever going to quit. Michael looked like he was going to crack on the previous lap, making it in with less than three minutes to spare, but bounced right back into the corral with us and started off. Sean is getting stronger as we go on. I'm not sure he's human. Glen seemed tired awhile ago but not now. He's so experienced. He knows exactly what he's doing all the time. He'd quit now if the race was over, but it's not, so he'll keep going. It's all the same to him. What's another hundred miles for someone who's done so many?
My quads are Jell-o. My hip flexors and stabilizers are worse; I have a single plane of motion with about a six-inch stride. I'm seriously considering walking the downhills and running every step of the uphills; the only thing keeping me from doing that is that I just intuitively know it's stupid. Sean, Glen, and I all finish between 53 and 54 minutes and try to eat. No sign of Michael. He was about 28:30 at the turnaround. Would he make it? Just after the three-minute whistle, his headlamp appears. He's struggling but he's going to make it. Crosses the line in 58:30, ninety seconds to spare. His crew brings him some broth; he sinks to one knee but doesn't leave the corral. Fuck. He's just going to stay in the corral and start again. He's not going to fucking crack.
Thirty seconds to go and we join Michael in the corral. He stands up and shakes our hands, wishes us luck. For the first time in twelve hours and fifty miles, we have a drop. We're down to three.
We shuffle off, still a little bit in shock. This wasn't as big a surprise as when Eric had dropped after leading so long--Michael had looked to be struggling for a few laps--but after it had been just the four of us for so long, we definitely didn't quite know how to react. Some small part of me had felt as though the race would never end, though I knew that was impossible. Now suddenly it seems as if the finish might happen after all.
Glen and I do our usual power hike/jog up the climb and Sean falls back as usual. By the turnaround we've got maybe thirty seconds; we'll extend that a bit on the return climb, and he'll catch us on the final downhill back to camp. Again, and again, and again. Everyone looks the same.
For the second lap in a row, and at least the fifth time in the last six hours, I'm ready to quit. My quads have simply given up; the downhills are agony. I tell Glen I don't think I'm heading out for another lap. He responds, "But Sean is still going."
None of us seem to be moving all that well off the line, but I manage to stagger out to my usual lead in the opening minute. From here, I know how it will go. I'll start hiking at the pole about 200 meters into the uphill. Glen will catch me shortly thereafter. I'll start jogging with him when the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt, six minutes in. We'll jog to the big tree on the right, then walk until we can see the Port-a-Potty at about the ten minute mark. From there we'll jog to the top of the hill and run down the other side. Sean will hike to the top, run smoothly downhill, and be slightly behind at the turn. The pattern repeats itself on the return. Sean will catch us when we hit the pavement again. He'll beat us in by about a minute. And we'll go out again.
Only this time, something is different. We're only two minutes in, haven't even hit the climb yet, when Sean says, "Hey, what happened to Glen?"
We stop briefly and turn around. It's black outside the glow of our headlamps. Glen and his headlamp are nowhere to be seen. We shout his name a couple of times but get no response. We're not quite sure what happened; in our fatigued state it seems inconceivable that he would turn back without saying anything to us. Could he have collapsed and his headlamp conked out? Did he just turn his lamp off to screw with us, playing some mental game? This actually doesn't seem that unreasonable, and part of me spends the entire lap expecting him to roll up on us at any second.
Since it seems to be just the two of us, though, we decide it's time to run together. Surprisingly, despite running in close proximity for the past thirty hours, we've actually run side by side very little. I've been "banking time" on the climbs and surviving the downhills; Sean's been hiking the ups and running the downs steadily. I tell him I'm not certain if I walk the hills, as he's been doing, that I'll be able to run the downs fast enough to make the cutoff, and Sean says he should be able to run most of the uphills with me. We fall into my usual run/walk pattern on the way up and hit the turnaround about thirty seconds ahead of schedule. We spend the time reliving the events of the past day and chatting about Big's. Now that one of us appears headed for a 32+ hour finish, the winner will be assured of a spot in the field. Maybe both if us will. There are still several "at-large" spots to be awarded, and rumor has it that some of those are already earmarked for folks with finishes in the low-30s, on courses less difficult than ours. Sean is assuming that we're both finishing lap 32 and is already looking ahead to 33. I'm can't comprehend anything beyond this lap.
We reach the top of the return climb in about the same time as my last several laps; I won't get timed out. I tell Sean to go on ahead, that I'm going to shuffle down and I'll see him back at camp. He takes off and immediately vanishes into the darkness. I hobble downhill, each step sending painful shocks through my quads. I arrive back at camp in right around 54 minutes; Sean has put three minutes on me in the last mile. He already looks ready to head back out. I can't find a weakness.
Brian is asleep, but Kevin is still there, checking on me, pushing calories as best he can. I keep up the charade but I know I'm done; I've known for twenty minutes that I can't bear another lap. I slowly drink another Coke and eat a GU, waiting for the whistle. With thirty seconds to go we both make our way into the corral. As Brian counts us down to the start, I give Sean a hug and send him on his way. And then I stumble back to my chair and finally, blessedly, stop running.
|My DNF medal|
Big thanks go out to RD Brian Vanderheiden and his fantastic crew of volunteers for putting on a first-class event and bringing incredible energy and support to the course at all hours; to Brian, Brian, and Kevin (and Finn and Mac) for dragging me through more low spots than I would've thought possible; to Jodi and the girls for their love and support; to my awesome teammates at MPF/RNR who crushed Manitou's Revenge that same weekend, and our great sponsors who keep that team going; to Dave Roche and the SWAP crew; and especially to Sean, Glen, and Michael for an epic experience I'll never forget. And thanks too to everyone who followed along during the race and reached out afterwards on social media. I'll need all that support again in just a couple months as I make my return to Leadville and try to improve on last year's amazing experience.