Monday, October 7, 2013

Bear 100 Race Report

Every year I look for at least one challenge that scares the hell out of me. Usually, it's a race or goal that there is a really good chance I won't finish. The Bear 100 has this in spades. On the course profile, I saw a 3,400’ climb from mile 0-5, long, punishing, relentless ascents and descents, and an average altitude of 7,500’. So a few weeks before the race, I registered for The Bear. Let's get to Utah.
Alaina, Cody pup, and I drove out through Wyoming after work late Wednesday, looking for a place near Rock Springs to park the Element and sleep in the back. At 11pm, the snow started falling. It was September 26th. Light snow turned to a blizzard so heavy it felt like we were driving backwards. Eventually we made it to Green River, WY, where our search was aided by a cop who pulled us over for a brake light out (or because we looked shady driving around aimlessly at 1am), and he told us about a pull off at the edge of town beneath a tower of rock. Thanks dude!

Driving in snow. In September
The next day we made it to Logan, Utah and met up with Kim and her husky, Tucker. We went for a tuneup run on a “family friendly” trail that was actually a 1,200’ climb with precipitous ledges and incredible vistas of the aspen thick canyons. I couldn't wait to race. Afterward, we headed to packet pickup and then drove to the race start and camped there. As soon as it was dark, I was asleep in the back of the Element, snuggled in my mummy sack next to Alaina and Cody. It was going to be a great race.
Wasatch Mountains with my family
Rolling out at 4:30, I got some food in my stomach and a little coffee, but 6:00am came quickly, and I was running to the start line. Everyone was off, and I was sandwiched in the middle of the pack. Weaving my way to the front, I spotted Karl Meltzer's signature Speedgoat logo on the back of his shirt, so I tucked myself behind him and waved goodbye to my conservative race plan. Wouldn’t it be cool to see how long I could run with the Speedgoat? Wouldn't it be awesome to shed the Conservative Case plan and roll the dice on a long race? I NEVER do that! Go for it!
So I started in the top-5 and stayed there comfortably on this first 5 mile climb, running the less steep stuff, and power hiking toward the top when the grade turned painful. We reached the first snowy section around 7,600’. First light was peeking around the mountains, and the pines were frosted like pieces from my childhood model train set. A shirtless guy finally realized it was freezing and put a shirt on, and the pack chatted as we admired the fall/winter beauty.

At the summit we were running through a cloud, with recently burnt landscape around us, and some people falling back. I was probably in 4th or 5th, running smoothly over the snow (something I have a lot of Michigan experience doing) and waiting for people to start running past me now that it was flatter. They finally did, and I’d run and chat with people as they came by, settling into my pace.
Heading up to Logan Peak. Photo Credit: Chris Beck
When I reached the first aid station at mile 10.5, my body realized it was getting super cold. At 8,500’ there was less tree cover, and the snow was blowing off the ground. I thanked the volunteers and headed out, reaching the first point on the course where markings were missing. I waited for the next guy to come up and then joined this great group of two other guys, Andy and Cody, who were terrific company if a bit too fast for me on this steep downhill section.

So, by the first aid station, we have the defining features of this race: incredible beauty, steep/technical hills, questionable course markings, and the cold.

The miles and time flew by running with these guys, sharing snippets of our lives. At the 20 mile aid station, our pack of three split up, and I was all alone. The race started feeling long, with 10 more miles until I’d see Alaina and Cody for the first time. I popped in the music, happy to knock off the miles over a long slow climb, exploring a great new mix of Savages, Surfer Blood, Mikal Cronin, and some old favorites like The Smiths and Richard Thompson. My legs were warming up but my hips felt stressed, and the hydration pack was tearing into my shoulder. I couldn’t wait to shuck it.
Entering Cowley Canyon AS. First time I'd see Alaina and Cody
Coming down the dirt road descent to Cowley Canyon, I saw Kim and Tucker taking pictures, so I gave a big smile and thumbs up. Alaina took my pack, gave me a handheld, and got me into my Boston Marathon jacket. I picked up the pace with the added warmth and kept a solid effort going into the open meadows of single track. Aspens were changing colors all around me and my race was coming around too.

Finally the trail went downhill and I found my downhill legs. I was flying. I caught up to the guy ahead of me, who had put distance on me on the flatter stuff, and I blasted a gap on the downhill. I went into the next aid and saw Alaina, who had her game face on, getting my bottle and nutrition changed pronto. This section was an out-n-back, so I saw I’d put a couple minutes on the guy I’d passed. I felt awesome!
Beautiful fall colors. Photo: Kelly Agnew
More climbing now. The songs were charging me up and I was moving really well. I hiked uphill, running the less steep grades, and I passed a guy who pulled away very early. I’m no gambler, but I understood what it was like to be up at the card table. You can’t lose. And if you do lose a hand, the next card is yours. Like Leonard Cohen says in "The Stranger Song", I “was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another”.

I caught a couple more guys and suddenly I was 3rd with Karl next. I laughed because no way was I catching him. I was running really well on the uphill and flats, but the downs were starting to ping my IT band. I’ve not felt that old injury in over 2 years, but here it was at mile 45, already grumbling persistently. Shouting at the pain, I ran downhill well and put gains on 4th and 5th place. I hit Temple Fork AS and Alaina and Kim had crewing down to a science. They swapped my bottles and I was out of that joint. 

I was downing Ensure at each AS, eating gels and Chomps along the way and everything was grooving. Except for my knee/IT. I even took a Tylenol. Never a good sign. The IT was tightening up and even my stretches were doing nothing for it. After leaving this Temple Fork, it was a long slow climb in shoe-thick muck with cow pies everywhere, and my movement was slow. I was happy to go uphill and give my IT band a break, but when I hit the crest of the hill and started heading downhill I was slowing. 

The trail was snow covered -- all around a gorgeous pine forest -- but I could NOT run downhill. My knee screamed in pain. I’d hop up and holler out in pain and this was only mile 48. My race was unravelling. At Leadville Silver Rush 50 miler I’d never felt this pain, but here it was, a clear and present danger. I hobbled downhill and a guy passed me. I wished it were me making a move. 

Slowly, I made it down to Tony Grove aid station, my bones starting to feel the death rattle of the cold, overcast, windy 30 degree weather, and I saw Alaina and Kim. I was so relieved to see them, but also scared and cold and in pain. I took another Tylenol. I’d drank little and eaten less. My stomach was starting to hurt from the effort, cold, and extra calories to stay warm. 
My crew at Tony Grove
I headed out. I was now walking the flat stuff. My knee was killing and I was shaking from the cold. Reduced to a limp, I was overusing my right leg. I started getting passed by a few runners, but I was in so much pain that I no longer cared. I just wanted to find a way to the finish. Forget the race. This is no longer a race, it’s an endurance event. Forget my place. This is about overcoming my demons and problem solving my way out of this situation. 

I hobbled slowly to Franklin Trailhead at mile 61 and saw Alaina again. She was there every single time. She was my angel. It was so cold out, and turning late afternoon, I could feel the dark cold of night approaching, cloaked hood and all. I got on the ground and used the foam roller. Nothing helped my knee. I stretched a lot, did all the tricks I learned from the PT, but it was futile.

I left the aid station, heading uphill, where I could hold a very good hiking pace from all our 14er hiking this summer. I listened to a podcast about an epileptic musician who went under the knife for a surgery that could destroy his appreciation for music. I cried like a baby for a mile. Lose my ability to hear music? That’s hell. 

The sun fell. Cows stomped out of my way. I moved on, getting passed on the flat/downhill sections, holding my own on the climbs. Then it was truly dark. I was on a dirt road that was losing a lot of elevation. There were no course markers, and I was afraid I’d gotten lost. Eventually I saw a light. A headlamp. Way off the road. I called out, 'Are you part of the race?' The voice answered, "NO! But keep going downhill, you’ll see the aid station!"

I hate thinking I’m lost. But I made it to the aid station. A 10 year old boy who was volunteering with his dad saw me and said “it must suck to run 100 miles!” Oh man, I must really look like shit. There was no crew at this aid station, which I'd forgotten, so I got the hell out of there before I could feel sorry for myself, crossed a large river on dark rocks, and started climbing slowly. The night was setting in. I started getting used to the knee pain, and it wasn’t getting worse. You know, just blistering pain with occasional moments of blood curdling screaming. 
Cold. Mountains. Pretty.
I’d made it up to a field of sage on top of a mountain, and then I lost the trail markers. I was wandering into the woods, over the sage, scouring the snow for the telltale Hoka tracks of the leaders. Nada. I got so cold. This ridge was all exposed, wind ripping, absolutely nothing else up there. I could see maybe 50’ in all directions, no lights anywhere on top of this mountain. I wandered around in every direction for 15 minutes until another runner came up the mountain, far from where I was wandering. It was the lead female and her pacer. I thanked her for showing me the way back to the trail and headed down the loose rocky pitch. 

As the trail evened out, the markers were sparse once again and the way unclear. I stuck with these two as we looked at her pacer’s phone with GPS coordinates. First we went down the road, then turned back and went up. This was silly. No way should three people together get lost. Finally we spotted a marker pointed toward Beaver Lodge.

Beautiful Cold. Photo: Chris Beck
Feeling pretty defeated coming into the Beaver Lodge aid station, Alaina and Kim once again made me feel like a rock star. I felt like the Keith Richards variety. They treated me like Justin Timberlake. Alaina got me into the warmth of the lodge to check in, and I thought about how hard it would be to leave this Ogygia with its Calypsos. Such lovely heat blasted in, with hot soup, food, volunteers, warmth, light, warm air, and the absence of blowing wind. Warmth. You get the point. But it was time to leave.

Alaina led me out to the arrows into the cold cold night of wind and poor course markings. Ah well, must keep moving. Such dark cold lonely hours. I switched over from podcasts to music and sang along with The Mountain Goats into the frosty woods. Mentally, I was staying in this thing. Physically, not so much. The trail turned to mud once again and I slogged up with my trusty power hike. Yes, I was walking this one in, but it was a hauling hike.

As the very late hours set in, my stomach growled for food. But the thought of eating my gels made me nauseous. My body was so cold that it was burning extra calories to stay warm, and my blood was being torn between protecting my organs and going to my legs to keep moving. It was definitely not going to my stomach to absorb food. I took one pull on my gel and threw up violently on the snow. I bent over and poured out several hours worth of fluorescent nutrition into a fresh white pile of snow. It melted right down to the dirt. I stared at my mess and smiled. Time to move.

A sign in the woods welcomed me to Idaho. I kept going uphill. For 5 miles. I finally got passed on the uphill. Damn, I’m really losing steam. A small band of hearty mountain people stoked a fire at Gibson Basin AS mile 81. I ate some potato chips, refilled my water, and headed into a ferocious headwind on a frozen tundra. The blasting arctic wind at 8,500’ sheared through all my winter layers. I looked for a tauntaun to crawl inside. Hoth is a vicious land. 
What the trail looked like in daylight. Photo: Chris Beck
The trail went downhill and I crossed a creek into Beaver Creek AS, where another campfire was blazing, and Alaina was there. I sat in a chair in front of the fire. Ice cubes tumbled from my throat as I mumbled jibberish. I zombied over to the car and got inside and blasted the heat. Alaina put a sleeping bag over me and Cody snuggled on my lap. I probably wasn't getting out again. I begged Alaina to let me nap for 15 minutes. I put on three layers of winter running jackets and napped. When I awoke, I was ready to finish. 

As I finally reached the crest and started descending down a nice smooth dirt road into the final aid station at mile 92, a headlamp approached from behind. I heard this thick German accent ask me, “are you quads, like, completely blown?” I cracked up. ‘Uhhh, how could you tell, man?’ He said he’s been coming to this race for 3 years from Frankfort, Germany, trying to get the Wolverine Buckle for finishing under 24 hours. This year he was finally going to get it. He had an hour buffer so far. Which meant, happily for me too, that we had a shot at the Wolverine. After he shuffled past me, I found my finish. I was going to go sub-24. I had something to race for again.
Wish I could've run this section in the daylight!
Into the final aid station, I sat over the fire and tried to get feeling back into my body. I had 2 hand warmers in my mittens (with shells) but my hands were freezing. Damn Reynaud’s! A volunteer warned me about the steep grade going up to mile 95, but I had no idea it would be this steep. Twice I lost my balance on the snowy pitch up, which had to be 25% grade or more. I had no idea how an ATV could get up this. At the peak, I could finally envision the finish. I was at the highest point on the course at 9,200’ and it was time to descend. Forget my IT band and my knee, forget the deep chill, forget my blown, overloaded quads and hips. Just fall downhill. And that’s exactly what I did. 

I dug deep and passed 3 people those last 5 miles. Not that I cared about my place at this point. That game was long over. But still, it was a nice reminder that I could finish strong after such very low points. The trail kept getting steeper. My quads were trashed and still they galloped down this mountain. I needed to get this over with. I hopped from side to rutted side of the trail, trying to find a piece of land that wasn’t pitched and loose. I hit the dirt road at the bottom and found my flat running legs. I refused to walk the flats. I would run to the finish of the Bear 100. I made a couple turns and there was the finish. I heard Alaina’s voice calling to see if it was me. I hollered yes! Then I ran into the silent finish area. It was 5am. And I finished the Bear 100 in 23:13 for the Wolverine Buckle.
All smiles at the finish.

The Bear made me very hungry for another 100. I know I can crush this distance. I rolled the dice on an aggressive game plan and it kinda fell apart, but I finished sub-24 on a very tough course. Next time I'll probably go back to the Conservative Case plan, but I have no regrets about this race. I took on a challenge that scared the hell out of me and I trained on harder terrain that I ever have before. I love the mountains more than ever. And the adventures have only just begun.

Plaque and Wolverine Buckle