It’s been almost a year since I have written anything, that’s really a shame. Tonight I opened a bottle of New Belgium La Foile, and decided to let the cards fall where they will. What follows is a bit of prose on my personal experience running 100 miles for the first time, and a bit of race report. I can appreciate that some lost souls may be searching the web for information about the Ute 100 wondering if it’s the right race for them. In that vein, I will happily provide some details about the course and other logistics. Shall we?
Into the Dark, Into the Light
If you’re only interested in the race report, it won’t hurt my feelings if you skip down to it. Otherwise, please, let me share a few thoughts about what running 100 miles in the mountains meant to me, and what I took away from it.
2018 has been a year of difficulty. Depression is a common bond that, for whatever reason, too many of us in the ultrarunning community seem to share. Explaining how depression feels to someone who has never experienced it, is a bit like explaining why you run 30, 50, 100 miles to someone who doesn’t run. Maybe there, we find something reassuring in others who do endurance activties, something that says “hey brother/sister, I get it. I know. I’m searching for something out here too”. None the less, it can be hard to talk about depression, with all the related stigmas that are attached. I am an open person though, and the judgements of others fall against me as leaves in the wind.
My struggles left me in limbo, as a result my training for this race fell by the wayside. My running could best be described as 35-40 miles a week of flat trails at sea level. It was only through a very chance meeting with a couple of other runners that I decided to travel to Utah and see what would happen at the Ute.
It’s a long story that I’ll try to keep short. During a day of bad weather, on top of Mt. Tam, I found myself running with Julia Millon who I had met that day on our way to the summit. After sharing just a few miles I could see Julia had this spark about her. Some people fake fearlessness, there are a lot of ways that can come out, but Julia was just enthusiastic, vulneralbe, and real. She was fearless and I recognized that in her almost immediately.
When Julia and I reached the parking area at the East Peak, we bumped into Ginny LaForme (which was a very random surprsise). Just then, another runner came down from the summit, yelling and laughing from far-off about the hail and nasty weather that was punishing us all. Then, Julia says, “hey, I know that guy! I haven’t seem him for a year!” They hug, and she introduces him as Dan. So, there we are… Julia, Ginny LaForme, Dan, and me, talking on top of Mt. Tam in a hail storm. Julia needed to wrap up her training run, Ginny was overseeing some orienteers who were spread out on the mountain, and I was freezing! Before parting ways with this chance group of folks, I exchanged contact info with Dan. He was local and seemed like a cool cat.
Several months later, I get a message from Dan out of the blue… “Hey man, I saw your name on the roster for the Ute 100, I’m running it too. I have no pacer, and no crew, you should ride up to Utah with me and do this thing!” I was grossly underprepared to run 100 miles, much less to run a mountainous hundred miler. It was one of those bad ideas that you just know is the only thing that makes any goddamn sense! I hesitated for just a moment, then called Dan back to confirm that it sounded like a great idea.
As we talked, he mentioned how tragic it was about Julia. I was floored to find out that she had died just a couple of months prior. I felt a bit awash in emotion right then. Her passing was a wake up call that life is fragile, and spending time doing anything other than chasing your dreams must be some kind of travesty, because we have so little time as it is. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. I think Julia would be both surprised and over joyed that it was a chance meeting with her that inspired me to run my first 100 miler.
(The Western States 100 memorialized Julia later that year. I can see that she touched the lives of so many people, and I consider myself lucky to be one of them.)
So, the Ute.
I really did not expect to finish this race, being very under trained for it. Other running friends encouraged me, saying things like “the 100 miler will change you”. This kind of thinking isn’t foreign to anyone who has been around the ultra running scene. The mysticism that shrouds the hundred mile distance is the kind that swirls into your dreams in thick, billowing clouds. In running films we hear others tell of their shamanistic journey into the dark, going into the pain cave, finding bottom, etc. Yeah, if you run 100 miles something should happen! Right? Well, I was fucking depressed and needed something to happen, so I was hoping it would.
As I ran, I found myself coming back to those words “the 100 miler will change you”, and I kept waiting for that moment. Whatever it was, I was sure I’d know when it arrived. The miles came and went, and somehow the great spiritual experience eluded me. Was I too broken to allow myself to have it? I wouldn’t accept that in the midst of a personal crisis, I could go out and run 100 miles in the mountains, and it would be just like any other day. Then the epiphany came. What I realized was: this is me, this is what I love to do, and this is where I love to be. It wasn’t a transformative experience I was having, it was an affirmative experience.
My thinking became clear at that point and I became very present. I stopped waiting for something to happen, it was happening, there was no need for it to be anything else!
The Race Report
I’m not really going to cover information that can easily be found on the Ute 100 website. The race is in the La Sal Mountains of Utah, it has about 20,000 feet of elevation gain, a lot of time spent over 10,000 ft elevation, and peaks out above 12,000 ft elevation. This is already a serious course. Add to that, climbs that are often steep, trail surfaces that are frequently covered in large, loose rocks, some aid stations that are 12-14 miles apart, no pre-packaged food at aid stations, and temperatures that will range from warm to hot. Now you are getting the idea that this race is very tough… or at least you should be.
The cut off was 40 hours. Only one runner finished under 24 hours. 30 hours seeemed like it would be a decent time for this course. For a sampler of what the Ute is like, the Speedgoat 50k could provide a good idea of what to expect, just in a shorter format.
Moab is a cool (hot as hell) desert town with lots of outdoorsy stuff to do. Dan and I rented a Jeep and went four wheeling out on Hell’s Revenge. We had a blast. I still can’t believe the shit we crawled over, dropped into, and bounced off of in that jeep! We also checked out Arches, which is right outside Moab.
The “campsite” at the start finish was a hot dustbowl. Air conditioned rooms at the Inca Inn, Super 8, or whatever will be what you want the night before, and especially the night after running!
The bib pickup and the pre-race meeting were in town on Friday evening, which was not exactly ideal. After a 40 minute drive back to the race start / camp, we set into final preparation for the next morning, and got to bed around 9:30. Cars were trickling into camp all night, people opening and closing doors, talking, etc… I may have got 2 hours of sleep. The day started early, we were awake at 1:30 AM for the 2:30 AM mandatory pre-race check in.
Having some mountain running under my belt, but never have run 100 miles and being completely unprepared for this race, my “plan” was basically to not blow up. I thought 32 hours seemed reasonable for a goal. After climbing to Mann’s Peak at 12,300 ft, I was starting to feel more spent than I imagined. A female runner that I passed on the way up joined me, stating in a somewhat nervous, yet accomplished tone “This is my first mountain… AND I’m scared of heights!” That wasn’t really computing in my head, but not much was.
Sean, the RD, had left a boom box playing Beastie Boys on repeat at the summit, before he para-glided off (yes, that happened), so I told her to enjoy the music, take in the views. A good plan, except she had fallen earlier in the day and banged her knee up something nasty. She was having trouble scrambling down the talus (not scree, as described in the race info) so I offered to stick with her, just to ensure she didn’t take another fall. After accompanying her to a manageable section of trail. I ran down the switchbacks, back into the hot temps at lower elevation.
The scene at the mile 43 aid station was a grim one. I looked around… that lady looks bad, that guy is hurting, that guy dropped (a Hard Rock finisher that I had met the day before), that guy is puking… and on and on. I sat down, wondering if I had maybe gotten in over my head for my first hundred-miler. There was no opportunity to drop for the next 30 miles if I decided to keep going.
A guy that was laying down, and frequently getting up to puke, eventually talked to me: “Hey man, are you injured?” he asked. Nope, I’m just contemplating, I replied. “Welp, look how effed up I am right now, and I’m about to get up, and walk back onto that course. You better be right behind me!”. Wow! That was what I needed to hear. A moment to remind myself to remember my inspiration. That guy was Stormy Phillips and the grit he showed in that moment, and again later in the race was something special. His words and actions were to me, the distillation of what this is all about. Needless to say, I got up, and got back on the course – and I never thought about quitting again. We shared some miles together and talked with depth and sincerity, it was getting dark, but the light would return. (Thanks Stormy!)
One thing I learned about the hundred miler, there is time to recover from setbacks. Things can totally turn around. From talking with many runners during my race, I noticed another common thread; many of them had returned to races multiple times before finally getting their finish. Wasatch, Leadville, Angeles Crest… these are tough races, and to have the mental fortitude to return after not one, but 2 or 3 DNF’s is an inspiration.
I was there without a crew or pacer. As night came, I paired up with another runner, Peter, and his pacer Michael so we could all help motivate each other through the dark, and the longest climb of the race, which was in the middle of the race for us. Then, Sunday arrived with the sunrise, and it was hot again. I just kept running the downhills and whatever else I could find the energy to run. Food at aid stations was sparse in places and a some of what was out there was not very appealing (process cheese… no thanks!)
I had been surviving on bacon and about 30 gels that I brought. My stomach was ok, amazingly. There was a poop break in there somewhere, which cost me another 20 minutes or so with having to scamble off the side of the mountain to find a place to go. After the last big climb (and what an ass-kicker that was, gaining 800+ feet per mile, ~85 miles into the race) I ran most of the way in, passing about 12 runners before finishing in 36:22. It was ugly, but I didn’t blow up, so goal accomplished.
I picked up my finisher’s buckle then went to find Dan, who finished in 31:44. After some high fives and hugs, we broke down our camp which was covered in dust and got a hotel room back in town (I will NEVER break down camp after running 100 miles again – total exhaustion!). Dinner, sleep.
Rose and Thorn
Would I run this course again? I dunno! That was punishing! The volunteering was great. People came from all over to volunteer this and take care of us runners. There was also the usual awesome camaraderie out on the course; other runners and their crews were very good to me (Peter, Stormy, Sean and Brenda… looking at you all). I’d consider running it again simply because of the views. I would definitely push for a finish time closer to the realm of 30-32 hours; I think I sabotaged myself by being overly conservative but it was also a tough course in all respects. Cooler weather would have helped too. So yeah, that curiosity is going to be in the back of my mind. I will probably be back! For now though, on to other trails! -JD
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage” ~ Anais Nin.