Race Report: Wasatch 100 2016
by Ian Golden
Under a cloud-free and star-studded night sky, our passage through the Wasatch Mountains was stirring thick clouds of dust so thick that at points my friend and pacer Yassine (Diboun) and I would pause, let it settle, and check whether we were still on the trail. Doing their best to help take weight off my wasted legs and keep me from sliding down steep chutes with apt names like “the Plunge”, my poles clanked over the rocky washes. An occasional headlamp across the valley switch backing up the next mountain pass illuminated by a brilliant half-moon felt comforting, but also disheartening given the 20,000 feet of alpine ascent we’d already covered.
We’d just spent the prior 10 mile section either getting passed by those moving well, or jockeying back and forth with others who were laid out along the trail of carnage, sitting on logs in dazes, tipped over with their heads on their pacer’s legs. Now hunched next to the Pot Bottom Aid Station’s fire in the dawn light, a heavy wool blanket over top of him like a tent fly, Yassine took advantage of the moment in trying to rewarm his core, frozen from accompanying me through numbingly slow miles for the past 5 hours.
It was the later part of the night, cold, tired, and fuzzy hours before sunrise. The point where your urge to stop is often strongest. The point in the race where it feels that every mile must have been mis-measured and not in the way you’d hope for. The point at which you either concede to the brain’s central governor persistently telling you to stop, or not. After going in and out of two low points that day and having not felt any energy return in 5 hours, I was just tired and done. The plan at Pot Bottom was for me to get some real food in me, find a place in a tent if there was one in hopes of getting a couple hours of sleep, then eating again. From there we’d move out, not with visions of finishing well, but rather for all those rooting for me, to simply finish.
Wasatch. With this race pulling together so many threads from my past 20 years it’s tough to know where to start, or where it started. Maybe with the seeds of run crazy planted by Greg “Cabin Boy” Loomis in 1999 as he journeyed into the ultra-world while running a stupid amount of miles while living in a lean-to sustaining on Pop Tarts. Maybe the immersive experience of showing up after work one night to the trails behind my house in Makiki, Hawaii to see if they needed help with the inaugural HURT 100 and result of being assigned to “pace” the leader, Luis Escobar through to the win. Maybe the year that followed in pacing Loomis in through 40 of the Cascade Crest 100 and being lucky enough to find myself in the periphery of the trail and ultra-community that was Seattle around that time and coalescing around Scott McCoubrey and the Seattle Running Company. Seeing Krissy prep and return from various ultras as she found herself pushing and rising hard into the culture set to boom and being energized in being around it. Maybe it was in occasional runs with Jeff Browning and Sean Meissner in the years after as they too went all in. I’m thankful for each of these individuals for setting the stage and being beacons in the community to admire. These are the snapshots who and which played a part in shaping the path I’d create in a life which I’m thankful for.
Wasatch. Of the 150+ of 100 milers now flooding the ultra-scene, the Wasatch Front 100 is one of the originals. A point to point course which gains around 25,000 feet through the Wasatch Mountains, keeps runners above 8,000 feet for 80% of the race, and above 9,000 for roughly 45%. Its climbs are big, as are its views. Although aid station volunteers were exceptional, you won’t find food until mile 16, the markings aren’t stellar, it’s remarkably crew-access unfriendly, and it’s not easy to get out if you drop out. We had perfect weather but it’s also known to dwell in potential extremes. Basically it’s not going to hold your hand. It’s one which the first ultra-generation were cutting their teeth on.
“You gotta finish a 100 before you can race a 100” at some point over the years Browning mentioned. In 2001, my first race above an 8k and just out of college, I DNF’d at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, dropping at mile 82 after running in the top 5 much of the day. It was a great experience and I left with no regrets. I was content with dropping. I set out not to simply finish, but to race and lay it all out there. 82 was all I had on that day. I also left very much respecting the distance. Until I was ready to be content with just finishing, I wouldn’t return.
In the years after life brought a handful of moves, new businesses, a couple kids, injuries, more injuries, a bout in triathlon, and never being able to feel or stay fit enough again. It also brought the side career of creating and putting on races and keeping connected and learning from every one. After 8 years of staging the Iroquois/Virgil Crest 100, I learned and experienced enough to know first-hand how the 100 mile distance plays out, to be able to relate to the ebbs and flows, the carnage and the successes that that distance over a solid course ushers in. It allowed for wisdom beyond my own miles.
At the end of 2015, after Red Newt Racing’s first full year, my system crashed. After a full year of way too little sleep, a bit too much stress, and my system chronically relying on adrenal stores to keep the furnace and emotions firing, it shut down after Virgil in September. For a couple of months I was exhausted, fairly unable to summon enough energy to be very functional. In December it started righting itself, but only so long as I got enough sleep and consumed enough calories, which reliably wasn’t reliable. Into 2016 it continued to be unpredictable. I’d built back up a baseline of fitness, was turning in solid workouts, but every few weeks my body would kick back with spasming and fatigue, a pattern that persisted up to the start of Red Newt Racing’s event season. At that point, all bets for consistent training are off. The culmination of all of it was and has been, that for the first time in my life I’ve been able to think of events not just for racing. I’ve also been reminded that I’m not getting younger or more capable. If there were any monkeys to reconcile, now would be the time. The 100 was one such monkey. Getting through the Wasatch Lottery seemed a postponed date long it waiting.
I crafted a baseline build calendar working around RNR events that would lead into Wasatch. Hyner in the spring, Worlds End late summer, plans for both longer runs and quality efforts throughout. But the unpredictability of my system had other plans and bouts of fatigue and inconsistent training led to pulling out of both. Thankfully, my amazingly supportive wife would subtly nudge me each time I’d fall and knowing this was something that I needed to reconcile. The first nudge was to get out of town for a weekend for what ended up being a great training effort with friends in the form of the ADK Great Range Traverse. The second was that I needed a longer run with a resulting 30 the following day.
The third and crux nudged me into returning to the White River 50. This was chosen specifically to return to the relative roots, a course I’d run 10 years prior, an RD Scott McCoubrey who was instrumental in not just the sport’s, but in bringing together many runners in the early years to a connected community. Adding to the excitement was the first opportunity to run an ultra with my brother Josh. It was an opportunity to share several days in an amazingly inspirational setting which is Crystal Mountain, to honor those who set the ultra-stage, over a course I’d covered a decade prior, to share it all with my brother, and, most importantly, to do it not to race, but, for the first time, to just enjoy being a part of all that. For the first time I was really looking forward to a day on the trails not racing, but for a day on the trails, in the mountains, with friends. It succeeded on each of those levels and the Wasatch stage was set.
My plan for Wasatch through July was to go sans crew or pacer. I knew it would get ugly and I wanted to remove as many outs as I could. In August that changed when Yassine indicated wanting to do what he could to bring me to my first 100 finish, just as I’d done for him for his first in the form of Iroquois. The combination of wonderful guy and status as one of the better 100 mile runners in the country made reconsidering surprisingly easy. An Ithaca College teammate Brian, living 10 minutes from the start offered to put me up and shuttle me as needed, and Doreen a former Ithaca training partner now living in Ogden graciously would be there with whatever we needed.
My goal first and foremost was just to finish. If I did I figured I’d be somewhere around 30 hours, starting closer to 24 hour pace but falling off a bit later in the race. The morning before heading out I created 1.5” by 4” laminated cards for each of the course segments with elevation profile, overview terrain details, estimated section and overall running time arrival targets, as well as fluid and caloric targets, and gear plans based on those projections which I zip-tied into a flip deck to keep in my vest pocket. I’d take the race one section at a time and not get overwhelmed in thinking on it as a whole.
With a 5 am Friday morning start I’d planned on flying out Wednesday evening after seeing my daughters to and home from their first day of school, and have all of Thursday to finalize details and get drop bags in order. The first hitch which I should have known better on came in the form of the TSA confiscating my primary planned endurance fuel…Nut Butter. Number two came when my second flight was delayed with no hope of making the third connection into Salt Lake. Best the airline could do was route me instead to Phoenix with a flight that was leaving immediately, and give me at least a decent night’s sleep before getting to Salt Lake just ahead of the pre-race briefing and drop bag cutoff. In a sign of the interconnected small-worldness of the ultra-community despite its growth, within minutes of learning I’d be routed to Phoenix that night, a text thread with a friend Jamil Courey while boarding and taxiing connected me with another Phoenix area ultra-runner who would not only put me up that night, but also pick me up and return me to the airport.
Arriving into Salt Lake just ahead of the meeting, Brian jettisoned me all over in scrambling for supplies I’d planned for the drop bags. With the Nut Butter confiscated the search for backups began, canvassing Salt Lake. We came up short on the Nut Butter but scored under the wire on Orgain (the green kind). I did my best to sort what I had into drop bags in waiting on a grassy median outside of one of the stores and finished off the bags in rushed format just as the Aid Station volunteers were finishing loading them into their trucks (sorry Elizabeth Azze…you did tell me to sort these sooner). Literally under the wire and not without some errors in sorting/packing to be discovered later. Through all of the back and forth of that day the Wasatch Range stood boldly to the eastern flank continually impressing on the psyche both the magnitude and excitement of the adventure to come.
After the typical restless few hours of sleep prior, a bit of chatting with Henry Peck, a RNR event regular and, at age 59, the oldest of those completing the Grand Slam of Ultras in 2016, the 5 am start came quick. I don’t think I really felt nervous at all, but rather calm, appreciative of the moment, and excited for the adventure ahead. That feeling, one which wasn’t the case in my prior life of racing is still new and I think much preferred. The course started with a couple rolling paved miles through a development before reaching the single-track trailhead. The opening ascent through Bair Canyon climbed 5,000 feet to 9,200 in elevation over 5.5 steady uphill miles. I intended to get out decently not in an effort to race, but simply to not get caught in the conga-line on that ascent. The plan worked well with a comfortable but decent opening pace making for a steady but unpressured or obstructed ascent. At the base I unfolded the Z Poles which I’d be handling for the first time. It was entertaining to learn to use them on the fly. They worked well and no doubt ended up saving my legs a bit, starting with the opening ascent.
The lights of the Salt Lake valley drifted into the darkness below while above I’d follow a handful of zig zagging headlamps toward the Geodesic Radio ball at the summit. Finishing the climb feeling solid we were greeted by a volunteer marshal with Eminem on the radio ushering in the sunrise. The dawn was breaking as I crested the saddle and the colors of the Wasatch exploded all around. Yellow wildflowers scattered around the burnt brown dusty rocky mountain access road. Bright red geologic striations in the jagged Wasatch range unfolding. A bluebird sky greeting us. It was impossible to not feel connected, inspired, and thankful to be there in that moment.
Aid Station 1 at 11 miles (water only), Aid 2 at 16…the day started rolling off. The course was a beautiful ebb and flow of ATV roads, non-technical alpine single-track, aspen forests, all flanked by the Wasatch. If it was an uphill I hiked it. Flat or down I’d run. I was careful to not release on descents and transitioned pretty smoothly with the Z Poles.
The altitude didn’t seem too pressing but my intestines were feeling a bit off from the beginning. The temps stayed cooler and I began continually falling short of my 20 oz per hour hydration target. Body just wasn’t asking for it (I would remain shy of my hydration targets for the entire race). I think it dialed into the effort and journey ahead fairly quickly and began asking for nothing but real food. Gels, chews, waffles…anything with added sugar it wanted nothing to do with. Energy levels were conserved and seemed stable. On a few ascents I’d catch myself feeling a bit sluggish and quickly reassured the governor that it wasn’t secondary to being off in fitness or fueling, but just dealing with long ascents at altitude. It was enough to ease the mental pressure and allow me to move through at whatever pace and effort the moment dictated.
Rolling down into Big Mountain Aid, 50km into the day, 10,000 feet of gain behind, I was able to connect with Doreen and Yassine for the first time. Crews were only able to access their runners directly twice during the race. Once at 50k, once at 100k, with a drop off point for pacers at 45. As I’ve spent quite a bit of time and effort creating courses for my races that are crew and spectator friendly, this is for sure quite the polar opposite. In this case, crew vehicles were required to amass at a check point prior to Big Mountain and provided clearance to proceed to Big Mountain only once their runner cleared the AS prior. It was quite the dialed in system and crews were ready to receive their runners inbound with solid energy. Doreen and Yassine were a solid pit crew. I changed out of the thin wool long sleeve baselayer I borrowed from Yassine (accidently packed all of my running shirts in drop bags in the pre-race blur), took on some frozen bottles per the long and exposed sections ahead, packed a burrito from Doreen, and was off.
Through another 15 miles of mostly ridge running with a really unappealing (least favorite section of the course) power lines ascent, we rolled into 45, the point where we could pick up pacers. The few miles in bound my intestines were starting to shout a little louder. Visions of a real and actual portajohn at Lamb’s Canyon was motivating. The Austin Powers’ish approach which zig zagged close to the AS only to run back away for a mile before re-approaching, only to zig zag again was a bit annoying but oh, the sweet sweet sight of a portajohn made up for every bit. I made myself at home clearing out the system. Enough so that Yassine came to see if I was alright about mid-duty. A change of socks, out of crew length feetures and into Smartwool full length compression, as well as shoes in retiring the New Balance 1080’s and into New Balance Gobi’s for the long ascent and interspersed road miles ahead. Added a bit more Body Glide around the grundle and over the feet (which were looking dust covered but in great shape), a restocked vest, and Yassine and I were off.
Well, off slowly, and then slower still. Intestines were still off despite seemingly very much cleaned out. The system dipped and I entered my first low point. I trudged the next 4.5 miles and 2,200 feet up a solid climb up Lambs Canyon. A fine welcoming of Yassine. Aside from a solid fast couple mile descent from the summit, I remained in a state somewhat frozen in time-energy wise all the way into Upper Big Water aid at mile 53. Those 8 miles took roughly 2:40, well off the pace so far on the day. I sipped on fluids but, ate virtually nothing for the entire section as my body absolutely would have nothing to do with anything except real food and the only things I was packing were items I was now attributing to potential antecedents to the intestinal problems. Another round in a pit toilet, and, more importantly, hot real food.
In 15 minutes in Aid we were off again, but, as is the beauty of ultra, this time with the system reset and flowing. This was testament to what I’ve seen as somewhat of a 7 Mile Rule. When the wheels fall off and tank runs dry, just hang in there with at least 7 miles of trudging. Time and time again I’ve seen ultra-runners dip and return again after roughly that distance. It held true here. The next 8 miles, from 53 to 61, I was doing the Bull Dance. Things were clicking. I felt good, power hiking mixed with running on the ups, consistent on the flats, flowing on the downs, picking back up all who’d passed me in the section prior and then some. I was talking to the forest, literally chasing the sunset into the Desolation Lake basin, up Red Lovers Ridge and toward Scott’s Peak as night descended. That’s what we’re out there for. There’s where you find it.
Night descended and with less than stellar headlamp (the first I pulled out before leaving Yassine feasting and warming at Desolation Lake aid), I was reminded just how relatively poor the course markings were. I stayed on course but not without several points of meandering and doubting on the ridge in darkness. We descended into Brighton over a good chunk of asphalt. My quads were starting to feel pretty tender. With a big climb to the course’s high point on deck, I kept the descent really conservative, walking a decent chunk. After arriving at Brighton Ski Resort 11 pm, pretty much just via a tractor beam of energy emanating from a lift house café rather than any discernable course markers, we caught up with Doreen for only the second time with Brian arriving just ahead of us checking out.
The café house was a pit stop way-to cozy for this point in the course. It was evident that some had succumbed to the comfort and been in there way too long. Some warm food, a dixie cup of Coke, some borrowed Houdini Pants, changing into the New Balance Leadville’s for added protection over some rocky technical terrain ahead, a new headlamp, a half zip and shell, beanie, and gloves and we were off, ascending to Brighton Pass at 10,500 feet. We’d anticipated a freezing windy summit but the weather gods just kept smiling as I shed layers into the clear warm night. Somewhere on the ascent, with a bit of productive cough, I was reminded of what might have been a bit of pulmonary edema setting in as my body did what it could to altitude adjust. We passed over a blood splatter which seemed to confirm I wasn’t the only one feeling a bit of Lunger building. Either that, or it was the fully racked buck laying freshly dead 50 feet off the trail at about 10,000 feet, a scent cloud of potent death hovering over the trail for a quarter mile, but with no apparent first arrival of scavengers. Up we went, moving slowly but steadily up over the highpoint, which, in the dark of night, conveyed a beautiful if not visible, power and beauty.
After a few mile descent we’d arrived into Ant Knolls. Another stellar volunteer crew who’d assembled a dome created and first used at burning man. Bacon, specialty soup, pancakes. Real food. It would have been easy to spend the rest of the night there and been content. Instead it was 9 minutes and we were out and moving up a new course insert, the “Grunt”, 72 miles in with roughly 22,000 feet of gain behind us, and still sitting at 9,500 feet, the wheels didn’t just fall off unnoticed, they came rolling by. It was pushing 02:00, around 04:00 east coast time. The witching hour for 100’s where the system starts not-so-subtly shutting you down. It’s time to get off the trail and sleep so that you’re not eaten alive by a cougar. After a couple miles of fuzzy walking we checked into Line pass, 75 miles.
What lay ahead was the longest stretch of the day. It was to be 10 miles. At the pace I’d just arrived at it would potentially take 4-5 hours and through the coldest part of the night. Hot real food, a little life contemplation, and an unsuccessful attempt to lie down and sleep for a spell quickly chewed up nearly an hour in-aid. I set off with Yassine buried under blankets next to a space heater, trying to rewarm his core after my pace reduced him to a virtual slog. And this is where this story began. 10 miles, 4 hours later I trudged into Pot Bottom at sunrise, tired, just tired.
As I set off, a pat on Yassine’s shoulder as he was again buried under blankets trying to warm his core after me keeping him at a crawl, my brain started processing. Doing the math. Thinking on the final few sections. Before the vision materialized House Of Pain’s Jump Around started playing in my head. The line that kept circling back was “Dawn of the Dead” and the feeling of rising, and, for the first time since night fell, starting to believe once again and in motivated fashion began to refuse to go out quietly. I knew that if I could flow, even just a little bit, I’d finish under the 30 hours I’d projected but, in the middle of the night, assumed was a lost target.
Power hiking the last climbs, even running them in spots, I began once again to move. In that moment, as is another general rule regarding energy returning after first light in 100’s, I was resurrected. Second to last AS, Staton, mile 90 felt dialed. I dropped the vest, pants, half zip. Changed into a singlet, picked up a 10 oz. handheld, some real food to go, the poles, and back out. The flow had returned. I moved really well into 94, was opening up on descents, powering the short roller climbs, and blew through the last AS, mile 94, Decker Canyon without stopping. The energy carried through.
At mile 99 Yassine appeared running at me. He’d set off a few minutes after I’d left Pot Bottom but, as I started moving quicker and quicker, wasn’t able to catch me. He’d managed to convince an aid station volunteer to give him a lift from the final aid back to the finish where he started backtracking. It felt so good, so right to have him reconnect. He’d been with me for so many low miles. I’d given him no reason to think I’d bounce back and his love in that moment, of seeing just that, was palpable. Into the finish together, 29 hours, 38 minutes.
I can’t express how thankful I am for all of it. For the lows. Without them I’d not realize just how wonderful the highs were. For my body, I couldn’t be happier for what it granted me on suboptimal fitness and given how much it’s done to reconcile the system fatigue over the past year. For my wife Sherry who literally pushed me to stay on task. For those friends in the past who motivated me and so many others around us to live for these moments and who’ve together created such a wonderful community. To the volunteers through the night giving us real food. To Brian and Doreen for being there. To Yassine for returning the favor.
I don’t think I’m a hundred mile runner. The window of being competitive I think sailed. But there are visions of other races, originals that were seeded in my psyche long ago that I haven’t resigned. Another Wasatch? Until mile 85 I would have said with absolute certainty “not a chance” At mile 100, and thereafter, not so sure. From here, I’ll just stick to taking it one section at a time and until then, remember chasing sunsets and resurrection through the House of Pain.