The rationale for ultrarunning has not been articulated to my satisfaction by anyone, let alone myself. There are long-winded grandiose treatises published by Ultrarunning Magazine, iRunFar, and on personal blogs. These takes generally overstate the sport's importance, describing ultrarunning as the meaning of life, the cure for the world's problems, blah, blah, blah. And then there's the underwhelming cheap explanations about pushing boundaries, getting fit, socializing, etc. I'm somewhere in the middle, but will probably never be able to convey the "why" effectively. Running for me is something to be done more than something to be explained. Forrest Gump probably said it best when he eloquently stated, "I just felt like running"
As I started trail running, I wrestled with the idea of doing 100 miles ever. Initially, I had zero interest. Zero interest slowly evolved into being mildly intrigued. I did more ultras and spent more time in the mountains. Eventually, I could see that I was becoming the kind of person that did hundred milers. I thought like they did, spent my time doing what they did, and I was in the kind of shape I had never been in before. Where it seemed insane and undesirable before, it now seemed sensible and inevitable. Most importantly, I was excited about it.
I chose The Bear as my first hundred miler because I was excited about it. It was close to home in terrain that was familiar. It was challenging with 22,000 ft of vert, a Hardrock qualifier if I wanted to go down that road. To enter, I needed a 50-miler finish. I took care of that in March at The Badger Mountain Challenge with a respectable time and felt like I could do more when I finished. I debated the pros and cons of doing a few more 50 milers and/or 100Ks before going for The Bear, but it just seemed like delaying the inevitable. It would take more time, pushing me out another year or two and I was confident I had the physical and mental toughness to cover the distance. I wasn't out to break records, I just wanted to cross the finish line and get the hundo monkey off my back.
Now, a month after taking a shot at The Bear and dropping at the 100k mark, I still think my reasoning was sound. Even though I was unsuccessful in finishing, I think I made the right choice to take a stab at the distance. As (bad) luck would have it, I got a cold the week before the race. This is usually a bi-seasonal event; celebrated in spring and fall with a cough that lasts a good week and then tapers off. Such was the symptomatology this fall and I figured it would clear up before race day. I spent a good portion of the night before the race hacking my lungs out, but felt well enough to start. And really, after all the preparation it took just to toe the line, I wasn't about to not give it a go. I was still snotty and a bit hoarse at the start and began my long day and night of blowing snot rockets.
Here's a breakdown of each section:
Short and to-the-point. Too a fault. It was confusing what needed to be done. There was a pile of waivers that needed to be signed, with no instructions about what to do with them. No guidance on race packets or drop bags. Everyone made our best guesses and eventually Leland the race director gave a little speech and we were done. I was a bit starstruck bumping into Timothy Olsen, Jeff Browning, Luke Nelson and their entourages.
Start to Logan Peak
I wanted to start out conservative. The fact that 350 of us were crammed onto a steep single track for about 10 miles made that pretty easy. In fact, I got frustrated on some sections where the group was moving very slow. Logan Peak aid station was a quick stop, only grabbing a few snack and then moving on.
Logan Peak to Leatham Hollow
Things finally started to spread out in this section. Fast folks were moving through the pack and slower folks were settling into the back. It was also really muddy and there was about an inch of melting snow. This lead to some difficult sections to work through with large lakes of muddy water filling the double track. I was close behind a woman who made the mistake of trying balance across a muddy ridge in the middle of the double track; she slipped and submerged waist deep in a large puddle of mud water. It would have been very comical if it hadn't of been so tragic. I was moving at a conservative pace on the downhills, keeping steady and yo-yoing with a group of 10 or so guys. Did not feel zippy, but was not concerned as I was keeping up and passing some. I didn't want to think too much about other runners and overextend myself by trying to keep up with someone I shouldn't. At the same time, I wanted to be aware of what other runners were doing to gauge myself. Most of these guys had a lot more experience than I did and I needed to learn when to push and when to hold back, so I made sure to pay attention to strategy unfolding around me. I rolled into the aid station feeling really good. I was moving well, feeling the effects, but not discouraged at all and ready to keep going. Deanna was there to greet me and I sat down to eat a bit before heading up the road.
Leatham Hollow to Richards Hollow
This section was relatively short but all on dirt road with a gentle grade. I was moving well and passed a lot of people on this section.
Richards Hollow to Cowley Canyon
Still feeling well and the weather was fantastic and even hot at times in this section. I did start to slow down, though. People were passing me, but I wasn't discouraged. Just kept moving and focused on keeping things together, not rushing or panicking. Just moving and passing the time. At the aid station, I ate quite a bit and kicked my feet up as I was starting to feel the miles more.
Cowley Canyon to Right Hand Fork
Not a lot of notable things in this section. Again, felt relatively slow compared to other runners, but still moving consistently and not discouraged.
Right Hand Fork to Temple Fork
Somewhere in this section is where I started to dismantle. I was walking large downhill sections and started to face the mental demons. I wasn't breathing well, was short of breath. I started to question if I could finish. I knew that thought would sneak in at some point, so this was not unexpected. But the fact that it was a rational thought and not simply a "I'm really tired" thought was surprising. My breathing situation was getting bad with my cold and logically it was hard to argue myself into believing a finish was going to happen. I convinced myself that my breathing issues were normal. I saw other runners slowing down with me and rationalized that this is expected. I was 40 miles in. It was supposed to be hard. I had drilled myself mentally for the months leading up to this on how to manage these discouraging thoughts and was successful in convincing myself to keep going and wait for things to fluctuate between despair, joy, apathy, and everything in between. I hadn't resigned myself to failure at the Temple Fork aid station, but I was in rough shape. Deanna tended to me and I sat regrouping for a good 20 minutes eating and summoning faith to keep moving.
Temple Fork to Tony Grove
The longer-than-expected break with Deanna taking care of me was more rejuvenating than I could have hoped for. I also picked up my trekking poles, which shifted the stress to new places. I'm amazed at how tired my back gets during ultras! I felt like a new man and even though I was tackling the second-longest climb in the race, the first 2/3 of it passed quickly as I was fresh. The final 1/3 of that climb were getting very hard w/ breathing and dropping temperatures, but I deferred judging anything until I could get to a downhill or flat. When that happened on the drop into Tony Grove, I felt really good. I had warm clothes on that boosted my morale and I was moving pretty well, even passing a few folks.
Tony Grove was noisy and there was nowhere to sit. I plopped down in the dirt next to another runner and asked: "this must be the dirt-sittin' club?" My profound humor elicited a laugh from my commiserator. The hot chicken-noodle soup wasn't as rejuvenating as I had hoped, but I felt decent when I decided to head out.
Tony Grove to Franklin Basin
That moderately good feeling ended quickly when the cold wind whipped across my exposed legs. The temperature was continuing to drop and I had put all of my warmest gear in my drop bags starting 2 aid stations away. That was the easy part. The hard part was the climbs. My lungs had revolted. Breathing was shallow and labored. I was going cross-eyed and getting dizzy stumbling slowly up the hills. Other runners were passing me en masse. The delusion that I was OK and within the normal range of a finisher's experience had slipped away. Doing the math in my head, I would have to maintain my current pace just to finish under the cutoff time. I had no faith that I would feel well enough to maintain my current snail's pace. Things were on a steady downward trend for the past 30 miles despite some moments of moving well. I weighed out everything and could only come to the conclusion that I should stop. It was surprisingly hard to talk myself into this after spending so many months training my brain to disregard such thinking. The logic aside, I think the real tipping point was when I had a flashback of a childhood asthma attack; I was experiencing the same symptoms. I was also feeling pneumonia symptoms, another ailment I had experience with. I decided I could live with myself calling it and that a Pyrrhic victory was not my goal. I wanted to finish and run another day. In fact, run a lot more days. So I rolled in and again, Deanna was right there waiting for me in the cold & dark. I immediately told her I was dropping and we went to the medical tent to check out. A Frenchman, also named Charles, had also dropped and the volunteers asked if we could give him a ride back to Logan. We happily said yes and enjoyed conversation about UTMB, the US, & France on the trip back.
Getting back to Logan, we went to McDonald's for a burger. For some reason, burgers are the only thing I want after a long effort. I slept pretty well that night, to my surprise. I woke up with a wave of failure and regret, having to reassure myself of the valid reasons for why I stopped. I was still in a mental mode where failure was not an option, so reprogramming was not instantaneous. We drove to the finish line to pick up my drop bags and watched as runners were coming in. This was both exciting and heartbreaking; I was simultaneously happy for each of them, but also badly wanted to be finishing with them. Fortunately, the pain of falling short has been overshadowed by the good that came of all this. It was a great day in the mountains. I ran farther than I ever have in my life. I gained invaluable experience. My focus has shifted to new goals and putting myself in the best position possible to be successful with my next attempt at The Bear 2018.
Thanks to my dear wife Deanna for crewing me; to my Aunt Betty & Uncle Wayne for housing us; to my parents for watching the kids; to the race organizers and volunteers; to friends and family for words of encouragement and support. The running itself may be an individual effort, but the process and logistics require help and patience from many. I am truly grateful for my good family and supportive friends for making this such a positive experience.