There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it: The sound barrier.
– Narrator, The Right Stuff
The Demon at Mile One-Oh-Oh
When I first fell in love with ultra running, I was doing laps around Kandahar Air Field behind a chain link fence, through clouds of dust kicked up by convoys going to, and coming from hell.
There were no bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions or skunks to run from. Instead I broke protocol and ran through the darkness along a stretch of road called snipers alley – a place where only a long passage of chain link fence separates you from the outside world and a sniper could pick you off with little effort.
There was no finish line for my “first ultra”. It was a training run that just kept going. I ran through the night, under the blanket of darkness covering the war-torn land; running still as the sun run rose over the horizon to scorch the parched land. I ran until I had covered just over 30 miles. There was no beer, no burritos, no celebration; only a tent with dodgy air conditioning and a 12 hour shift after a short nap.
When I returned to the states, I kept moving. The deeper I fell into the sport, the magical number always remained 100. The last three years have been a build up to this. At the FLUT I ran just shy of 70 miles, and earned my first qualifier for Western States at The Canyons this year. Despite long distances of hard miles and big climbs, I still had 30 or 40 miles to add on before I met the big number, the threshold. The Demon. What would happen?
The number is almost arbitrary. Built off our desire for base-10 numbers, thanks to the number of fingers on our hands, it is a nice round number. Even the distance most commonly raced/ran before 100 miles is 100 kilometers. Even in America, we say “100K”, not “63 mile”. While the power of the number is speculative, what it takes to move that distance is not.
I had no idea what to expect.
Initiate Countdown Sequence.
Dear Lord – please don’t let me fuck up.
First American In Space
With regard to training, the months before the event were mediocre at best.
Moving in to the new house left boxes everywhere and every spare moment not working or running, trying to settle in. My Facebook feed was filled with elite runners putting down back to back 40 mile runs on weekends, and I was lucky enough to get a back to back of 7 miles with the stroller on a Saturday and 20 miles the following day, wedged hastily in-between family obligations. While this arrangement of priorities has always been my choice, I could not help but wonder if I was ready or not to toe the line.
I did, however, have a very good week in VA and PA, and that did as much for my legs as my morale. Still, I was trying to follow Hal Koerner’s training plan as a guideline, and falling insanely short. I was under-trained for the biggest race of my career so far, and the Demon beckoned.
The Thursday morning before the race, my three eldest kids and I set out for the Washoe Lake State Park camp ground to camp, hike, swim, and enjoy the majesty of the Sierras and Lake Tahoe in the days before the race. Liz had to work through Friday, and was planning on coming up in the evening after work to join us. It took me hours longer than planned to get packed, out of the house, and everyone moving. It was a Griswold Family Vacation, and I didn’t even have my race day gear ready.
T-Minus 10, 9, 8, 7….
The day before the race was a buzz of excitement. I prepared my drop bags, and found I had left most of my favorite calories and my good headlamp at home. All I had with me was a cheap 3-AAA Coleman headlamp and a tiny, $3.00, no brand, single-AA, hand-held flashlight I got at a gas station a few years back.
I placed an empty drop bag at Hobart Aid station – mile 7 and 57, figuring I could leave my flashlight and thermal shirt there after starting and warming up in the morning, then picking them back up before nightfall on the second loop (This worked perfectly, by the way).
I left my most inclusive drop bag at Tunnel Creek – the aid station a runner passes through 3 times per loop. I left some calories, spare batteries, and a vial of liquid bandage in that one – a barefoot runner’s greatest asset.
My kids and I went to Lake Tahoe, splashed around, and enjoyed the afternoon. We went to bib pickup had dinner at the Firkin & Fox, then stopped by Spooner Lake for a little family hike at sunset. Personal belongings fell out of pockets along the route, bug spray was forgotten, and I ended up hiking 2 miles, and doing speed work for another mile and a half running back and forth along the trail to collect things and get bug spray.
All of this at about 7 pm, the night before my first 100 mile race.
After showers and fizzled camp fires, a good day drew to a close. I ushered the kids to bed, and was just brushing my own teeth when my wife pulled in at 1130 pm, late from traffic on her long drive. Olivia, our toddler, had stayed with my wife for the previous two days and didn’t want to sleep after her nap in the car. She loves being out in the tent, and combined with seeing Daddy was far too exciting. She was up, and bouncing about. My wife and I laughed at the misfortune, adorably disguised as a laughing, playful one year old…at least everyone was happy.
I had to be up in 2 hours to get to the bus and run 100 miles, but here I was: a campsite full of kids, a happy baby, a tired wife, and myself.
I looked out at the stars, gave a chuckle, and closed my eyes – It was all I could do.
We Have Liftoff: The First Loop
Exhausted but awake, with three cups of coffee in my belly I took off into the darkness of the early morning. My tiny hand-held flashlight bobbing along in the chilly, predawn murky light – 6000 feet up above sea level. It. Was. Freezing. I wish I had brought gloves and pants.
The tag line for the event truly captures the course with succinct perfection; “A Glimpse of Heaven…A Taste of Hell.” There are so many incredible views, I had to keep my picture taking in check.
The rolling, rocky, and hazardous single track pulled for my attention while the beautiful granite strewn landscape called for my wonder. The Sierras are distinct in their look and feel – beautiful, yet bold – don’t turn your back to them.
I did my best to maintain an even pace, and stay in a comfortable rhythm, keeping my speed up while energy use low, and holding enough in the tank for later. I bounded down the hill at Red House, kept my speed in check, took it easy on the quads, and power hiked on out of there. I made the outer loop up out passed Bull Wheel, towards Diamond Peak and took in the grandeur. I waved from the ridge line at my family down at Washoe. I ran, I power hiked, I felt good.
But….Uhhh….wait up…..Hm. I am……ahhh…..
I feel funny.
At about 8800 feet, close to the highest in the course, 25 miles into my adventure and just before the downhill swing to Diamond Peak, I felt like I had been boxed in the ears. I started to feel dizzy and chalked it up to dehydration. It was early in the mid day and the air was getting warmer, I had gone dry on water, too.
I made my way as fast as I could comfortably move down to Diamond Peak aid station at mile 30 and felt like throwing up everything in my stomach. I couldn’t take food, or fluids. I tried to sip water as best I could. I had to sit for 45 minutes before being able to eat and continuing on. Upon later reflection, I realized what I mistook for dehydration was more of a reaction to pushing too hard at altitude. While going dry may have played a small roll, trying to keep my focus and effort output at altitude with just under 2 hours of sleep the night before, was too much for me to efficiently and effectively deal with.
I re-hydrated and crammed all the calories I could muster. I fought off the urge to throw up and eventually, made my way up the ridiculous, inappropriately high Black Diamond slope. I power hiked that thing like an animal, though, and felt satisfied and accomplished at the summit.
On the way back to Tunnel Creek, feeling much better than before, I was staring off into the trees contemplating the mysteries of the universe, thinking of my family, and absentmindedly kicked a root. Blood began to pool in my sandal, and I cursed wildly. By the time I made it to the TC aid tent the bleeding had subsided, my toe caked with dirt and dried blood. The medical staff were courteous and helpful, giving me a wipes for my feet, and I made use of my perfectly placed liquid bandage from my drop bag. After several coats, and 30 minutes later, I was off on my way again. Medical issues had now cost me well over an hour, but I was happy, eating, and moving.
I had gone in to the event with 3 goals:
1. Sub 24 hour
2. Sub 28 hour
As the day wore on, my lack of sleep started to take hold. I knew that I was wearing down at a faster rate than I would have liked. I finished my first loop in around 14 hours. Goal #1 was now out, and #2 was a fleeting hope. A sub 30 hour race would make me happy, but it would be a big push – all I needed was a second wind.
A Second Wind Under the Stars
Gus Grissom: Say, Hot Dog; what the hell does “astronaut” mean, anyway?
Gordon Cooper: [thinks for a moment] “Star Voyager”
I laid in the dirt, my head on the sign my kids made for me. They had worked on them before coming to see me at the halfway point. It melted my heart.
I tried to sleep. Our friend Tina Shinn came over and said hello to Liz and to my slightly-lifeless body. My infant daughter demanded my attention. My older kids were yammering on about…whatever….and I tried to doze, but it wasn’t going to happen.
I took my off-the-shelf-at-Target headlamp, kissed the wife and kids goodbye, and made my way out to the second loop. Breaking the cardinal rule of ultras, I was also trying something new – at mile 50 of 100, no less. I was wearing socks with sandals. I had never done it , ever – not even for a walk to the mailbox. I knew it would be cold up on the ridge lines though, and thought that I could always take them off and put them in my vest if needed. I love my Earth Runners, they are great to run in…but I didn’t want cold little piggies going wee wee wee…all the way up Diamond Peak.
Without a good nap, I reached Hobart in a daze. I took some soup, a shot of soda, and a hard dose of reality.
I didn’t have another 45 miles in me.
I just didn’t. I watched Rocket try to warm a runner by a propane heater. He looked worse than I did. There were other runners that looked worse too. I assumed many of them wouldn’t make it across the finish line.
I had to.
Leaving Hobart at night is a a mental endeavor. Standing at the edge of the warm tent, with lights, music and a fully stocked bar, it is a comfortable place to be. Ahead of you lays the inky darkness of night, the howling winds of 7000 feet, and an explosion of stars above.
Out I hiked up along an exposed rocky ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe, and stood staring up at the stars. There was no one around. In that moment, it was my sky. As exhausted as I was, I was happy to be there. I took up ultra running to find myself after 25 years of missing goals, redirecting life plans, and finding new paths.
Depleted, confused, and mind-numb, I continued over the ridge and looked down on Carson City and Washoe. I was getting spooked by witnessing tufts of grass turn into demons. For the first time in my running career, I was hallucinating. I became confused, walked around on the trail, back and forth until I found a ribbon and felt confident I was on the right path, and from there, the creeping doubt I wouldn’t finish chased me into the woods.
After 5 hard miles I made it to Tunnel Creek. I really have no idea how long it took me to get there. Too long, I suppose. I stumbled, walked, and fought exhaustion. I made it to TC as the parade of flashlights going up and down the Red House loop signaled the bulk of the mid packers. Everyone was there in the procession of lights- and I needed too be there, too.
Except, I couldn’t.
If I went, I was done.
I had nothing left. I was exhausted. My two hours of sleep finally took their last swing. If I went down the tenacious hill of Red House, I was not going to make it back up. My only hope was to lay down on one of the two cots at the medical tent and ggnnnnsszzzzzzz………..
I woke up 45 minutes later, with a blanket over me and another folded under my head.
“There are no hard cutoffs, but if you want to make it to Diamond before the 9 am cutoff, you need to leave now, and be back by 4 am,” a volunteer told me.
That was all I needed to hear. I woke with the vigor of Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I took a cup of coffee, stood, and stretched. I was a new man. I felt great.
The last of the mid-packers were hiking out of the Red House loop, as I dropped in. I giggled to myself as I continued to wake up. I ran with a girl and her pacer for a few minutes, before loping on ahead. I met a friend of mine and his pacer, and ran with them for a few minutes before pressing on. I took delicious fruit and soup at the Red House aid station, and on I went.
I received smiles and thumbs up from the volunteers at the TC aid station who had sent me on my way not long before. They warned me that Bull Wheel had run out of food, and only had water, so I poured in calories, and continued on down my voyage under the stars.
I pushed on, seeing runners heading toward their finish, and I was running as hard as I could to stay ahead of cutoffs. I pondered if I would end up the DFL. I continued to pass several people, some of whom looked strong enough to finish, but most who did not. I wondered if they would make it, and hoped they would.
Leaving Bull Wheel, I synced up with a runner and his pacer, who I stayed with for a few miles. We chatted periodically, but at that point in the race, we were all tired enough and spent most of our energy keeping pace. Everyone was feeling it at this point.
Watching the sun rise over the horizon, casting its light over ridge line and on to the lake was a moment I will not soon forget. I started to pull my phone out to take a picture, but thought better of it. No photo would do it justice. You may read about it here, but if you want to see it, you have to go earn it there.
Pushing on into the morning, I know found myself at roughly the same spot on the trail with the same altitude symptoms as before. This time I sat my ass down, sipped water and breathed. I meditated to find focus. After a few minutes I felt the symptoms had abated enough for me to carry on.
Somewhere in there, I hit mile 71 and smiled. Every mile was a new distance for me from here on out.
Reaching mile 80, I closed in on Diamond Peak as they were closing up. I made it by 7 or 730 and runners had to leave by 9. I stayed for 30 minutes, drank a lot of coffee, went to the bathroom and ate as much as I could, as I had a hell of a climb ahead of me, and TC was the next stop for food. The medical staff was folding up some of the cots and the party was winding down. What was once a loud, energized event the night before with runners and crew partying slope-side at the ski lodge; was now a somber few volunteers ushering the last of the runners out on the course before cutoff, with looks on their faces knowing some may end in DNF.
I left an hour before the 9 am cut off, and powered up the black diamond slope looking out over the lake and breathing hard into the motions. I kept my back straight and posture as best I could. I knew I was tired, but the end was approaching.
After the climb I lost a lot of my dwindling energy. Knowing that I could make it to the finish well before the 35 hour cut off and feeling relatively fit considering all the hard miles I had put in, was comforting. I was, however, running out of mental steam, the limits of my 45 min nap having been reached. The more runners I passed, the more looked like they wouldn’t finish. I saw more grit and guts in those last 30 miles than I have in a lot of other events. There was a lot of do-or-die runners, slugging it out with themselves and the trails, feeling a whole lot worse than I did, and putting in more than I was. It was humbling in a way.
On and out I continued, falling back as the morning sun warmed the slopes. It was not necessarily hot, but it was baking me slowly, marinated in my own sweat and blood.
I alternated running and walking, jogging what I could. My legs and feet felt relatively fine, but I was on fumes. I managed to find myself within the last 10 miles bouncing around with several runners who all seemed as though we would finish within the same time. Some rallied in a way that made me wonder where they got the energy. Another brought out the last I had, chasing me the last few mile down to Spooner Lake.
I crossed the finish in 34:36:26. Certainly not the performance I was looking for, but it was done.
I ran comfortably over the timer. My legs and feet felt strong. 102 miles of trail in 8mm Earth Runners huarache sandals, a testimonial to what good form will allow you to do. My nutrition was well managed, my electrolyte intake solid. SaltStick and water every step of the way, with soda at aid stations. Fruit, coffee, and a shot of beer. I had taken most every lesson I had learned up till that point and executed it well, only compromising the finish I wanted by neglecting the night before, and the sleep my body desperately needed.
The day after the race, I got on a flight and dropped my phone in security. Sadly, I lost all my pictures from the race, but it reflected the weekend well in a strange way; embrace obstacles, and enjoy the moment. First place or last place, pictures or not, it matters little. The experience is why we do it, not for the buckles or pictures, but to prove we have what it takes to get it done. To show ourselves we’re stronger than whatever demons chase us into the night, and to know that we have the Right Stuff.
Thank you to the Race staff, volunteers, coordinators, spectators, llamas, and runners. It was an amazing event. You stayed awake through the night, camped on howling mountain tops, dealt with freezing cold while tending to blisters, dehydration, exhaustion and altitude sickness among others. Thank you all, so much.
The day after the race I dropped my phone at the airport and so far recovery efforts have been unsuccessful at pulling the pictures off, so all I have are a few I uploaded to Facebook before, and the official race shots. Sorry!
The Winged Ling