After last year’s successful Thanksgiving trip to Mt St Helens, I wanted another go ’round. Having the made the 11 mile trip up to the Olympic Hotsprings as a final long run before the Moab 240 this year (in flipflops because I forgot running shoes), I thought it would make an accessible trip, good for a group of friends in cooler weather. The hike is about 9 miles along a paved road which isn’t passable to cars due to a short washout. The final two miles are on a wide trail which is clearly a former forest road. This means the group can walk side-by-side for easy conversation. The consistent grade and surface make for easy walking. Most of my invitations were ultimately declined (not surprisingly between Thanksgiving being a family-first holiday and COVID) but Ella, my go-to hiking partner, managed to wrangle her friends Briana and Fran into coming at the last minute. The trip was a smashing success.
Thursday (November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving)
The trip started with some last minute packing in the Madison Falls Trailhead parking lot. Briana is an experienced bike packer but this was going to be her first backpacking trip and since I’d forgotten to bring my extra full sized backpack, Ella’s spare frameless, hipbelt-less pack was going to have to suffice. Given that she was carrying a two-person tent and a bear can, it was going to be something of a trial by fire. Ella had to sit on the pack to make it all fit.
We set off down the road. The first mile was spent adjusting pack straps, stopping to change layers, and figuring out how to access snacks. My participation in the shakedown portion of the trip was to reposition a cellphone holder I’d purchased since losing my phone out my pack’s hipbelt pocket earlier this year (Ella found it).
The road starts broad and well maintained. It’s hard to imagine it washed out. Eventually the road has to cross the river and at that point, there’s simply no bridge. The footings are still there and appear in good shape. It’s such a clean break that it seems strange that bridge hasn’t been repaired.
We took the well used, unofficial bypass route along the riverbank (per signs: Warning! Unstable!) to avoid a short climb.
The bypass trail shows you a collapsing shelter on the bypassed section of road. Maybe the repairs would require more than just airdropping in a bigger bridge. It seems like an entire section of road is vulnerable to flooding.
The other side of the washout shows more damage. Maybe it’s not as simple as replacing the bridge with a bigger one. There area past the washout has a number of buildings, including a ranger station so I’m curious what the maintenance plan is.
A little while later you reach a bridge which hasn’t washed out. This answers the question of how to get across the river.
From here the road began to slowly climb. It was wide and we walked four-across falling naturally into stride.
The next stop was a small overlook and one of the few viewpoints on the hike.
Conversation seemed to dominate the experience to the point where walking might or might not be happening depending on whether we were waiting for someone to water a tree or grab a snack. In one case, I’d dropped back, the ladies had stopped, and didn’t restart when I caught up.
The talking was so constant as the road meandered upward that if one particular thread of conversation involved only the two people on one side of our line, the other two would start spinning their own. We fell into pairs and drifted apart and reconvened at the end of the road without significant time seeming to have passed. From the end of the road, a wide trail which appears to be a former forest road continues. There are a few rivulets, a rock hop (Ella tried to eschoo her traditional crossing technique of pretending there’s no water), and one footlog. These would block a car but aren’t an issue for pedestrians.
From the footlog, the campground is a short distance. You can see how both trail there and to the trail to the hotsprings were former forest roads. That makes for two generations of infrastructure loss due to wash out. It is incredible to think that once you might have been able to drive to the hotsprings. I certainly don’t mind using 11mi of easy walking to reduce use so there’s more for me, but it seems a pity to lose access through deferred maintenance.
We set up camp on arriving to avoid having to do so in the dark after dinner, then went to find a hotspring for our Thanksgiving feast. At this point, having scouted the pools previously was a great boon. The best pool was take by a friendly older woman we’d passed on the way up and who must have passed us back when we were setting up camp. She was by herself and had set up a tent by the pool and so I guess she was making the best of having to celebrate alone.
After a quick tour of the offerings, we set up at the second best pool which conveniently happened to be near camp. A number of the pools have been damaged which goes with the theme of deferred maintenance. I wonder if there’s something preventing trail crews from working on them since it seems like public hotsprings would be both an easy sell for volunteers and a much beloved destination which would many would want maintained.
When setting up at our chosen hotspring, it was a little hard to figure out where to put packs and food since the pool was fed by a seep which seemed to be coming from everywhere. We balanced what we could on rocks but between the seep and an intermittent mist, everything got wet.
Initially I’d been worried that if I got wet, I’d be cold after getting out. The air temperature wasn’t that cold and the spring was very hot and so I wound up going in as did most others. You actually had to get out from time to time to cool off dried quickly without toweling.
Ella has a interest in fashion and loves taking photos (“pics or it didn’t happen”). She broke up the stereotypical Thanksgiving table argument I was having with Fran about whether college dorms rooms should all be single occupancy, by getting us to pose under the fairy lights. Then she took a bazillion pictures. Many looked a awkward. Maybe that was due to the painfully hot natural heat vent where we were being posed (beauty is pain, right?).
While the fairy lights illuminated one end of the pool, the end where Briana had set up lacked area lighting so she mounted a headlamp sideways to illuminate the surrounding area. I thought it was hilarious, like one of fake arrows you can put over your head to look like it’s gone through.
Eventually things wound down and we packed up. I’d left my insulation layers out when I’d taken them off and they’d all gotten damp. Fortunately, the hotsprings left quite an afterglow and fleece handles the damp well. In any case, warm, fluffy sleeping bags awaited us back at camp. Eventually, actually I put on more damp layers to dry them with body heat. Briana’s socks had gotten wet but she was enamored with their ability to hold heat anyways because they were wool. Everyone wound up warm and cozy.
Camp was set up with our tents facing each other and we talked until about 10:30pm. We finished the wine and when the others went to hang the bear bag, I went to relieve myself only to discover that I couldn’t stand without leaning on a tree. I didn’t drink during that traditional time of regrettable introductions to alcohol known as college and like to feel stable on my feet. Usually walking back to the bar or fridge is a moment to check whether I should be getting a soft or hard drink. I’d been reclined as we passed the wine bag and while I noticed some effect, had no clue that I’d gotten stumbling drunk. Ella tells me my stories started being padding with nonsense. Apparently I’m a happy drunk. Other than having to retension my tent because I leaned on it too hard, things could have been worse.
Friday (November 27, 2020)
I heard an alarm go off and be quickly suppressed while it was dark. When my tent walls did begin to lighten, I was feeling good and got the bear bag so we could have breakfast. Ella had packed in the only stove. Fortunately, she gets up early to make herself tea and so obliged my request for hot chocolate.
I got back in my sleeping bag to enjoy breakfast in bed and after Fran and Briana woke up, we pretty much repeated the previous evening but in daylight: snuggled in our sleeping bags talking and eating. No alcohol this time, we’d finished that the night before.
It was something like 11:30am before we packed up camp. The sun had long since risen but with cloud cover, it stopped getting brighter after the first hour so there was no cue that it was almost lunch.
The trip back was pretty much the same as the day before – always talking, usually walking, sometimes eating. Everyone got to connect with everyone both in pairwise conversation and when we marched in a single rank. The timing of our trip had been excellent as we saw many more people heading up to share the hotsprings than had been present when we were there. We also took a little time to poke around the buildings trapped on the wrong side of the washout.
We made it back around the washout and to the cars. Ella did not throw her traditional post-hike tantrum, but maybe that’s because there was still the ride home to let the good vibes drain away slowly. It had been a Thanksgiving to be thankful for.
The Moab 240 is a 240 mile endurance event (it’s not a race, it’s a “lifetime achievement”) near Moab, UT. I’d put myself on the waitlist after COVD-19 canceled my summer plans because a friend was running it, another friend was planning on crewing them, and so I figured if I got in, it’d be one big party of sore feet, suburn, and sleep deprivation. Also, this would be a chance to revisit the landscapes which had so wonderfully affected me on the Hayduke Route. COVID-19, of course, meant that all the international runners couldn’t come so I got off the waitlist in a hurry despite being something like 46th.
My race plan was copied from another friend‘s FKT attempt for the Washington section of the PCT. 20hrs of walking at 3mph followed by 4hrs of sleeping. Repeat for about 4 days and you’re done, probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Things went… differently.
Getting to the Start
Arguably, most of my training is documented on this blog. Lots of long over-night hikes. After the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee in May I didn’t run until mid September except for a 100km course. The run in September was a single 24mi loop reactivated a recurring sacral issue. The physical therapist I saw for the sacral issue recommended focusing on a the run-walk strategy but said if it came up, I was clear to just push through. I didn’t plan on pushing through days of pain on every other step so I figured I’d have more of a walk-walk strategy.
The week before the race, I’d taken leave from work and planned to road trip to Moab with an itinerary left to spontaneity. In practice, this meant that other than a quick stop to see some friends, the most interesting thing I did was “heat training” in a park in Boise (let’s be diplomatic and say this reinforced the intention to use a walk-walk plan) and discover that Salt Lake City Brewing has a nice oatmeal stout (which I didn’t get to enjoy because my parking expired). Between late night processing of a romantic disappointment and learning to sleep in the back of Elliot, my 2003 Ford Escape, I was insufficiently rested going into an event known for sleep deprivation.
All in all, not a training/prep strategy I recommend anyone copy.
Check-In (Thursday, October 8, 1-2pm)
The race starts in the Moab RV Park but since there’s only parking for RVs, you have to park across the highway in Lions Park. Walking over, I met Cynthia, an older woman who’s been doing endurance runs since the 90s. Her greatest concern was figuring out how to use the GPS on her phone. This was very comforting.
I passed the health check, got my bib, and went back to the car for my drop bags. Five drop bags just zip-locks with a change of socks and the elevation profile for the next section. The other drop bag was the sleep station drop bag, a duffel with tent, sleeping bag rated to 12F (it can get cold in the desert), oversized shoes if my feet swelled, extra clothes, a warmer fleece for the mountains, and a individual battery packs for my headlamp, watch, and phone. This duffel would be transported to the four aid stations designated for sleeping and so I packed things in it which I might want but wasn’t sure when I might want them.
Leaving the drop bags on the tarps and walking away felt very committing. Especially because my sleep station drop bag had bulged over the size limits. Would my most important gear be there when I needed it?
Pre-Start (Friday, October 9, 5am)
My alarm woke me up in the back of my car. I was parked in the lot of a hotel where I’d paid to leave my car during the race. I suppose you’re supposed to sleep in the hotel, not your car, but they didn’t have any vacancy. I’d had to tie a shirt over my eyes to block out the lights placed at close intervals around the lot. I had slept some which is about as much as ever happens before a race.
I changed into the clothes I was expecting to wear for the next four days: the only long-sleeved athletic shirt I’d owned for more than a week; supportive, breathable briefs whose discovery changed my running/hiking experience; loose running shorts I’d found at a thrift store after all the running shorts at the local running shop turned out to be restrictive (ie I don’t have a scrawny butt or spindly legs); and a bright orange cap with a drape which I’d ordered at the last minute because it was the only optino which would arrive in time. I double-checked every item in my vest. Forget something now and you might not discover it missing until you you needed it to, say, find you way at night in the cold. I hid my wallet in the car, taking ID, a credit card, and some cash in case I DNF’d and the way back to my car wasn’t simple. On normal runs, if I even bring these, they go in the upper of two zippered pockets in the middle of my vest which has a key holder. Since I put other things in that pocket as well, I opted to put my valuables in the lower of the pockets and never open it until the end of the race. I wrote myself a note on my phone about where my car was parked.
All runners probably double-check their gear before giving themselves to the starting line. This was different. Without support, I had to be prepared to take care of myself after the finish, even if I were in a compromised physical and mental state. Finally, I locked my car and walked a mile along the highway to the start.
Start (mi 0) to Hidden Valley (mi 9.3)
There was a crowd around the starting area. People stood as far apart as their curiosity would let them. I made my way to over to a table where a volunteer took my bib number (#136) and wrapped the velcro straps of a tracking device around the shoulder strap of my vest. The volunteer’s motions were firm like a nurse who knows that the easiest way to get things done is not to worry about being too gentle. “Good luck” the volunteer said confidently, patted me on the shoulder, and called “Next”.
The start was broken into five waves with the slowest runners, by self-reported finish time, going first. Maybe if the fastest runners start last, we’d all finish at the same time? I was in the third wave having listed an expected run of 96hrs. A man in a puffy sang the national anthem. No one had their hand over their heart. Then the singer took his puffy and scurried to join the first wave. The race director would call through her megaphone for each wave to start lining up and remind everyone to get their trackers. Inevitably, there would be a last minute scramble as someone realized they hadn’t gotten theirs. In my wave, it was Cynthia. She made it back just before time was called and we broke across the start line at a very slow jog.
The first few miles were paved and I tried to have both feet on the ground at some point during each stride as a way of keeping myself from going out too fast. Eventually, I fell in with Cynthia and we traded running stories until about where the pavement turned to trail. Older women tend not to go out too fast like us excitable young men so she made for good company and good pacing.
From the pavement of Moab, the route took a trail which contoured well below a mesa, rising slightly but mostly rolling easily. I got stuck at the back of a line which felt like it was going at a walk but pausing whenever it encountered a runner from an earlier group. The runner in front of me was from Bellingham. I would come to know runners by their home towns since it was usually the first piece of personal info you’d trade. Bellingham had a volunteered at several 200mi races and gave me some tips. We agreed that, being from western Washington, the heat and dryness would be a challenge. After a while, two runners got up the courage to pass the whole line, Bellingham jumped in behind them and so I did as well. From there he and the other two slowly pulled away but it was nice to establish my own rhythm.
Arriving at the Hidden Valley aid station, I realized that I had no plan. I tried to stuff some food in my face while also grabbing things for later. I wasn’t sure what to take. The slight sucking feeling in my stomach told me I hadn’t taken enough food from the start. I’d thought that the bar I’d had for breakfast would hold me over and was now afraid of being calorie deficient. The physical therapist specializing in endurance athletics who I’d consulted about my sacral issue had recommended using sports drink for hydration and carrying water just to wash the taste out. I took two liters of sports drink and no water.
I needed to keep moving but felt like I’d forgotten something. On my way out of the aid station, a medical volunteer asked if I wanted sunscreen. Of course. They gave me a paper towel to hold over my eyes and sprayed my face and neck from an aerosol can. I heard shouts of “runner comming” signalling that the pack I’d just left was here. I didn’t want to get caught up in it again so I turned to go, hoping that nothing was amiss.
Hidden Valley (mi 9.3) to Amasa Back (mi 17.8)
Immediately, there was a set of tight switchbacks which climbed what looked like a nearly vertical crack to the top of a mesa. Near the top, I looked down and saw a someone in a half-brim sun hat, white sun protective sleeves, and something with La Sportiva in large lettering. They were actually running up the rocky trail without poles. This person was either a fool or in it to win it.
The trail broke onto the flat top of the mesa and all of a sudden I could run again. It was incredible to be among the large rock formations and so I compromised by trying to take pictures as I ran. Runners snaked along the path ahead of me like ants or water droplets following a course. The runner in a sun hat caught up and saluted me with some pleasantry. I replied with a pleasantry but then heard the crunching of footsteps off the path. He’d been too polite to say, “runner back” or “on your left” as traditionally indicate a request to pass. He was moving with incredible consistency and power, not a fluid, adaptive stride and I hung on for a mile or so since it was convenient to pass people as a unit so they only had to step off once.
The single track crossed some slickrock (sandstone) and turned into a 4×4 track and began to roll slightly. I’d caught back up to Bellingham but the runner in the sun hat with the mechanically consistent gait pulled away never to be seen again. My understanding is that he won the race.
The 4×4 track required you to keep an eye out for the big picture as it would cross rock faces which would push you onto what might seem to be the trail, only for you to dead end in a thicket of bushes. This happened twice and once it was convenient to have GPS to confirm the start of a steep descent off the mesa. I called back two other runners at this juncture who’d continued up a rise. The descent took us took Kane Creek Road and eventually the Amasa Back aid station. I ran those final miles with a fellow from Charlestown who I thought of as “Chucktown”. We traded training stories and marveled at how our prep had been in such different environments and prepared us so differently. He’d only gotten off the wait list a few weeks before. He seemed like a strong runner and said he wished he’d had a chance to start with the elites just to see how long he could hang with them.
I was worried about having overused my quads on the climb and descent in this section but both were steep enough that there wasn’t much for it. Going slower would have still required large, powerful steps and stopping frequently to rest is really the only thing you don’t want to do in an event like this. Also there was a subtle feeling in my butt an inch to the right of the bottom of my tailbone. This was my worst fear – the sacral issue. In the past, if it had started, it would eventually build up and being sendind a pulse of pain on every right footfall until the end of the event. Walking sometimes enabled me to continue it, but I didn’t want to slow walk the next 220 miles. I kept running anyways.
My first drop bag was at Amasa Back. I changed socks and studied the elevation profile for the next leg. There was a meandering climb and eventually a big drop but if you looked at the vertical scale, it wasn’t too much. More to the point was that the day was beginning to warm. I still didn’t have a process for the aid stations and so ate randomly and stuffed my vest full of whatever seemed good at the moment, trying to make sure there was a something with salt for hyponatremea since the PT had cautioned me about that.
Amasa Back (mi 17.8) to Base Camp (mi 32.8)
Out of Amasa Back, I decided to jog-walk as much as I could. The course was on a ledge above the Colorado river and slightly uphill but with many brief runnable sections. The sacral issue was becoming noticeable but didn’t require management yet so I decided to put off dealing with it for as long as I could. I passed a few people who quickly caught up at ambiguous points where I stopped to determine where the route went. It was funny calling back to them, “I can’t see trail but I’m trying this way, let me know if you do something else”. They’d usually confirm. This cooperation was a wonderful form of sportsmanship and I love when it happens during endurance events. These temporary alliances can be for seconds or hours, and make for a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst ostensible competitors.
At one point, a runner ahead appeared lost as the trail worked it’s way up a shelf. I found a paint mark denoting a hard u-turn and so called him back. Part way back, he called me back, indicating that my way was about to cliff out. By then, the two runners behind us had caught up. We followed the GPS track past some flagging attached to the only bush nearby, slightly up and to our left. The GPS tack then pulled it’s own U-turn at an overlook and we backtracked to the flagging where we realized it indicated we should climb some rocks. Apparently however had recorded the course had gotten lost here as well.
There was a short, steep climb, some rolling, then a long, slightly downhill track wide enough to be jeep road across mixed rock and dirt. The sun was unrelenting and there was no wind or shade. The sports drink started tasting less palatable and I had no desire to eat. I dropped to a walk, even on the most runnable sections and the runner in front of me began to pull away slowly. There were many mountain bikers along this section and I couldn’t tell if they were out for fun or volunteers monitoring the runners for safety.
Eventually, we came to very steep set of tight switchbacks on large, loose rocks called Jacob’s Ladder. There was a photographer at the top who I’m sure captured excellent pictures of the dramatic view of the canyons beyond as runners take large, drop steps over the edge. I was worried about breaking a pole and so went slow. Everyone I’d been with pulled away except for one fellow we’d recently overtaken who was walking slowly. At one turn, there was a sliver of shade and so I stopped to transfer sports drink from the bottle in my pack to the soft flasks I carried up front. While doing this, several runners passed. I’d later recognize most of these runners later in the run except for a black man who I understand took second.
After the descent, there was a dirt road which ran for miles (maybe 8-9?) and was almost flat. My stomach was hard and felt on the edge of being upset. Whenever it calmed down for a moment, I took a sip of disgusting sports drink, or popped a candy or gel in my mouth. I couldn’t run but was walking well at a little over 4mph. While I knew that walking such a runnable section was to leave a huge opportunity on the table, the downside was that if I got sick or dehydrated, the recovery would consume much more time than the few minutes per mile I’d gain by running. At these distances, running is typically 10-12min/mi (6-5mph), sometimes more. Walking at 14-15min/mi in exchange for not blowing up is an excellent trade. Four runners passed me – three quickly, one at a slow run-walk. I let them all go.
The road lead around a ridge which contains Hurrah Pass. To keep my mind off my situation, I watched for anything I might recognize from having traveled over it on the Hayduke Route. I knew the next aid station was a resupply I might have used on that trip but hadn’t seen when I’d walked through. Now, when I finally did see it, slightly sooner than I’d expected from the mileage count on my GPS watch, I was incredibly relieved. A runner in orange passed me and exclaimed a single desperate word, “water”.
Base Camp (mi 32.8) to Breaking Bad (mi 57.3)
The Base Camp aid station was a mess of wilted runners. I approached a volunteer and asked for water. He handed me a cup. I drained it and handed it back. This repeated several times. Then I poured a cup over my head. Then I crashed in the last empty, shaded chair and joined in the ongoing chorus of requests for ginger ale with ice which I kept pronouncing “ginger aid”. No one wanted to eat but someone ordered a hot dog and everyone else realized they too should probably consume something besides sugar. I took the left over ice from my ginger ale and put it under my cap. It gave me a brain freeze and another runner said to shift it around to the back of the hat which helped. Eventually, several runners decided that the course wasn’t going to run itself and left. There was a runner from Delaware who looked at the elevation we’d gained so far, about 3500ft, and remarked how much it was. For comparison, that’s a typical day hike in the Cascades. The flip side was that he seemed to be handling the heat better than most.
When I heard someone shout “here comes the bubble” or something like that, I decided to try and skip out ahead of them. The next section was 24 miles with a water cache 4 miles in. I put some more more ice under my cap and left. I felt grand and ran most of the way to the water cache, passing a lot of runners and walkers, a number of whom and recently passed me. I walked for a bit with Bellingham and we griped about how the heat was going to ruin us Western Washingtonians. He was walking to avoid overheating. Later there was an Italian who lived in Georgia but told me that the runner out front was an Italian from Italy. He enjoyed making grand statements about an Italian without clarifying which Italian he meant. Another fellow was from Peru but had lived in the states for ten years. A man who had caught up to me when I’d been transferring sports drink at Jacob’s Ladder but declined to pass was resting in meager shade of a scrawny tree by the water cache. He coached volleyball at BYU and was nice enough to point out which container was the coolest. I reciprocated by offering to pour some water over his head. The Peruvian accepted this cooling shower when he arrived but Bellingham didn’t bother with it. A runner showed up wearing a puffy vest and complaining about trouble breathing. I encouraged him to stay until he could breathe as the next 20 miles would be difficult to get vehicle access for a rescue if something went wrong. The rest of us left the Lockhart Water Cache together at a walk but drifted apart on the brief climb up to to the rim along which the Lockhart Basin Road contours.
The ice in my hat wasn’t quite melted when I reached the rim and so I began a run-walk where it didn’t feel strenuous to push things. I caught up to the fellow who I’d had to let go after catching in the previous section. BYU said this guy was Wes and had bib #1 but that he hadn’t been looking good. I hadn’t seen the bib but it was nice to know him by something other than “the guy in blue who I did call back with”. He wasn’t looking good but said that he’d thrown up just after Base Camp aid station and was slowly feeling better. I asked about food and water and he had some so I let him be.
The next two fellows I passed, one being Delaware, were sitting down having a snack break which they joked was a new aid station. I’d passed Delaware previously while he was stopped to snack only to have him pass me back when I was reduced to a walk on the runnable section into Base Camp. I figured something similar would happen here. It was now late in the heat of the day and ice in my hat had melted but the mesa above the jeep track cast enough of a shadow that I could jog when I felt like it without overheating. There was a bike packer pushing his bike across the broken but frequently runnable terrain. It was very strange passing a cyclist. Usually the cyclist passes you.
Lockhart Basin Road takes a sharp turn to the south and at this moment the views which had been constrained by the Colorado River basin open up and you see multiple canyon and mesa systems. I’d experienced this sudden visual expansion on the Hayduke which shares this portion of the route, but it was nice to see it without sheets of rain blowing in and obscuring the distant landscape.
Shortly, I passed the runner in orange who’d cried, “water” as we approached Base Camp. He was repairing the wrist strap on a running pole with a zip tie and said he was doing well on water. For a time after that I didn’t see anyone but enjoyed trying to match the meandering turns and dramatic mesa walls against my memory from the Hayduke. I never was able to remember quite where the Hayduke makes a sudden turn off into one of the imposing drainages. There were also fewer cattle trails than I remembered.
Then came a several mile stretch where I passed a number of runners, mostly because they were spending more time walking than running. Notable was Witt who was sitting on a rock massaging his legs which he said were cramping every two miles. Ihad stopped to transfer water into my front bottles and we got to talking. He’d hiked the Washington section of the PCT the year before me and mentioned having hiked the AZT as well. I enjoyed meeting another thru-hiker in a race which had involved a lot more hiking than running. The two runners behind us caught up and we had a quick discussion about how much mileage was remaining. The others thought we were about five or six miles from the next aid station, having forgotten than the 20 miles listed for this section were from the water cache, not the previous aid station. In fact, there were 10 miles left. I was feeling good forced Witt to take a half liter of sports drink since the liter he had seemed low for 10 miles of desert walking. There was a little less than two hours of daylight left and I took off at a jog, hoping to make Breaking Bad without needing a headlamp.
Having given away any extra liquids, I now passed several runners who were exclusively walking because they were out or low on water. The worst off was Chucktown who was not moving quickly and whose left foot seemed to be turning inwards in a manner I associate with exhaustion. He had an ounce or two of water and six or seven miles. He’d drunk the 80oz of water in his bladder without knowing it because the bladder was in his backpack where he couldn’t see. I offered a sip of sports drink which he took as did the next runner, from Port Orchard who I remembered because earlier in the race, he’d explained the Washingtonian runner’s difficulty here: we’re used to going on two hour runs without drinking anything because it’s cool and wet and we drink through our skin. There was a runner from the group which had passed me on Jacob’s Ladder who was walking because his heart rate was over 150. Another, Tory, was from San Diego he could handle the heat, but walking since his water was in a bladder and he wasn’t quite sure how much was left. Seemed like a theme. Lastly, there were two runners who were actually running about as much as they were walking. They’d seemed to be traveling together but as I got closer, one dressed all in white pulled away and sped up as I closed on him. We wound up run-walking the last few miles together. His name was Zach White which I enjoyed a great deal because it matched his white spandex costume and rhymed with “runs through the night” which is what he was about to do.
Zach and I had slightly different expectations for where the next aid station was but we were both short. After thinking “just around the next turn” a few times, we came across a sign which said the aid station was in one mile. As Zach noted, this was the first mile marker we’d seen on the course. Thinking about the hot and thirsty runners behind us, it was a really good idea to offer a little encouragement at the end of a long section.
When we finally spotted the Breaking Bad aid station which appeared as a few lights just off the road on a ridge below us, Zach decided to run it in. I didn’t feel like making the effort but excitement got the best of me and I jogged after him, almost catching up where he’d stopped off to pee (also with excitement?).
At the Breaking Bad aid station, I sat down hard in a camp chair near the food and stayed there. Any attempt to move brought a volunteer instantly. Water, ginger ale & ice, a sandwich, broth, soup, etc… were all mine at the mere suggestion. It had been a long section and I wanted to reset, so I wasn’t rushed. One of the volunteers told us that we were 3 and 4, and that 1 and 2 were running together about 4mi ahead at 4mph. We were both shocked. The volunteer described the next section as all on road and it sounded runnable. At a little more than a half marathon distance and at marathon pace, I’d have been able to catch them if I’d left immediately. Of course, this was a 240 mile race so I wasn’t going to do that. Zach was a much more experienced runner and I was here to have fun so I figured I’d ride Zach’s coat tails for as long as I could keep up and the company was good.
Some other runners started filtering in. This was really good to see. I’d expressed concern to the aid station captain about the state of many runners and almost got emotional when I said they might need to send a vehicle up the road. I saw this whole thing as a “we’re all in this together” event where people should take care of each other like you might on a long distance hike. Of course, there’s the “run your own run” culture and the price of entry buys you the support of the race company so you don’t have to support yourself, but part of me wanted to load up a 30L pack with water and go back the way I’d come making sure that no one was dehydrated. Instead, other runners started arriving and that was the impetus I needed get back on my feet and keep moving. There were over 180 miles to go.
Breaking Bad (mi 57.3) to Indian Creek (72.3)
I’d been expecting Zach to leave Breaking Bad before me, but we wound up leaving at the same time and choosing to run the next section together. There was a water cache about half way, making it unnecessary to carry more than than a liter in my front bottles given the relative cool of the warm night. The section was all dirt road so movement was easy and navigation was trivial. We chatted about running and adventuring. I was a faster walker, but Zach’s run-walk was stronger. Two or three times he’d stop to stretch and then catch up. When we stopped for water at the cache, we were tickled to see a bag of sandwiches left behind, presumably by one of the elite runners because they didn’t want to carry the weight.
The Indian Creek aid station was at the back of a camping area. Every site had lights and people were milling about. It was a little hard to figure out where to go, but suddenly someone recognized Zach and told him to follow them. He had crew and his pacer for the next section guided us in. At that point, he was surrounded by crew and the tentative plans we’d made to continue together seemed unlikely, so I injected myself into the discussion just enough to say that I’d be by the fire pit he if wanted to leave together, then planted myself in a chair. First thing was to get my sleep station bag and plug in my watch (primary navigation), cell phone (comprehensive navigation), and headlamp. Forget this and things might go very wrong at a very inopportune moment (ex: my headlamp shuts of in an instant when it runs out of battery instead of gradually going dim). It felt like a line from the book Farmer Boy I remembered where Pa teaches Alonzo that a good farmer takes care of his horses before himself. I ordered two hamburgers since I hadn’t had any real food in a while and I’d seen someone eat hamburger patties in a Barkley Marathons documentary. While I was resetting my vest (loading it up with carryable food and water as well as rearranging any gear), the runner I’d passed when he was walking due to elevated heart rate came in. He was from Divide, CO so I thought of him as Divide. He was looking strong, talking well, declined food but appeared to have his own, and planned on continuing without sleep. I overheard he had a military background and asked if he’d had sleep deprivation training and recall him acknowledging it.
At this point a half hour had probably passed and there was a clear decision to make. How long to sleep? My race plan dictated four hours. Yet, somehow, I was tied for third in a prestigious race and that had not part of the race plan. Being a recreational runner who usually finishes around the 30th percentile of most well attended races I’ve run, this was extremely unexpected. I wanted to respect the opportunity in front of me and sleeping for four hours seemed disrespectful to the moment, like discarding a gift in the giver’s presence. Not sleeping at all seemed hubristic, like I’d be putting on airs of being an elite athlete with war stories of crazy hallucinations. Typically I don’t function well after 10am when even slightly short on sleep from the night before. I settled on a 45min rest since the runner’s manual and event’s medical coordinator had recommended that as an amount which would significantly ameliorate the effects of sleep deprivation. I asked a volunteer to wake me and got into my clean, soft, enveloping sleeping bag.
Indian Creek (mi 72.3) to The Island (mi 87.1)
I don’t think I completely passed out as I woke easily when a volunteer touched my sleeping bag and said it had been 45 minutes. Still, my eyes didn’t feel dry anymore and my legs felt fresh, if not strong. In a few minutes, I checked out and learned that I was the 10th to do so.
The section started with a mild downhill on a dirt road and I jogged for a while. I passed two racers walking and talking. We traded encouragements but I wanted to get while the getting was good. The route turns onto a paved two-lane road and I kept up the jog for a while before falling back to a walk. This was a racing walk as fast as 13:36min/mi according to my watch, but the change of form was made the effort much lower. It was strange to have reached the point where I was walking the downhills, especially well graded ones which almost push you into a jog, but it was a long race and I didn’t really want to feel like I was using reserves or getting tired. At the starting line, a volunteer had yelled advice to the 6:15am wave to, “never go hard” or “never try” or something like that. Seemed like good advice.
The route turned off the paved road onto small but well kept meandering dirt roads. This meandering and feeling each aspect of my gait kept me engaged for what was probably hours. Eventually, I was walking up a wash which still had a little water in it, dodging around to find the driest way forward. Ultimately no water got in my shoes which I was glad of since it seemed like wet feet would be one of those small discomforts which might cause much larger issues later. After a mild, well graded climb, I was found myself approaching another car camping area, this one smaller than the one at Indian Creek. There were no lights on until, at what seemed like the very back, I found The Island aid station.
My stop at The Island was relatively short, though I sat down long enough to eat and drink real food, reset my vest, and chat with the volunteers. One of them joked that you don’t need a day at the spa to get pampered, you can run an ultra where the aid station volunteers wait on you like servants. I also saw Zach’s pacer and asked after him. Apparently he was napping and I said to say hi for me. I suppose I was a little miffed that he’d left me for his crew at Indian Creek without a proper goodbye, but you run your own run and maybe he’d come looking for me when I was sleeping. I’ll never know, but it felt like my tiny revenge to now depart while he was sleeping, even if I expected him to pass me shortly. By then, all would be forgiven.
The Island(mi 87.1) to Bridger Jack (mi 102.6)
The night had been warm but for a few minutes just out of The Island, it seemed cold enough that I stopped to layer up. A few minutes later, it was warm again and I stopped to delayer. The trail rolled and was littered with rocks but I’d given myself the rest of the night off from running which made foot placement much easier. An hour or so before down, my head seemed slightly off, so I took a nap in a dry creek bed, feet uphill, timer for 15 minutes but got up after 10. It’s hard to describe exactly the state where I decided it was worth the dirt nap, but the logic boiled down to, “I’m here to have fun not endure hours of zombie-like soul-sucking stumbling so let’s just nip whatever this is in the bud”.
The trail’s rolling began to flatten out making it more runnable. About the time there was enough light in the sky to see colors again, I looked back and saw about four headlamps bouncing along in the mile or so behind me. We were running along a rim and so it there wasn’t much to hide the competition. Having checked out as 10th at Indian Creek, I figured those headlamps were more experienced runners who’d be overtaking me at the next aid station if not before. I felt like making them work for it and so ran a little more than I might, but never to the point where my legs were tired or I was breathing hard.
At some point shortly before the sun crept over the mesa hiding me in it’s shade, a motor bike came came down the trail towards me. The rider stopped and took his helmet off. I asked what he wanted, perhaps a bit tartly. “You’re in fourth” he said. I forget how I responded verbally, but immediately translated that to “the fourth person I’ve seen” and since the leaders were probably far ahead, that meant I was at least 6th.
The Bridger Jack aid station was a welcome sight. The sun had recently crested the mesa and while it was mid-morning, there was little shelter from its continually brightening heat. I’d just PR’d in the 100mi though I now can’t recall the time (my only other 100 miler had >3x more vert than the ~8000ft my watch showed). I used the luggable loo in a privacy tent which had a broken zipper. I spent some time off my feet, ordered a breakfast burrito to go, and reset my vest. I recognized a volunteer and thanked them for helping at multiple stations. The aid station captain gave me some insights on what was coming: there was a big climb but it was north facing so the sun wouldn’t be so bad. David Goggins had gotten lost in this section the year before. I’d heard about David from Zach who told me the same story. Apparently he was one of the two leaders and I figured that, given that everyone who mentioned him was telling me this same story, he was out for redemption. Someone with that kind of motivation might be put up quite a fight and I felt a little sorry for whoever might be competing with him for first. I was certainly glad not to feel the pressure to do anything but run my own run.
Just as I was about to leave, having put ice under my cap, when someone called “runner coming”. It was Chucktown! I yelled at him something like, “how are YOU here?”. Of all people to overtake me, I was not expecting a fellow I’d last seen walking seven miles in deteriorating condition with two ounces of water. He looked gloriously happy and said he’d spent and hour and a half recovering at Breaking Bad. I figured I’d be seeing him again soon and felt glad to have gotten to witness part of what seemed like a huge come-back story in the making.
Bridger Jack (mi 102.6) to Shay Mountain (mi 121.6)
Out of Bridger Jack, a road with a hard surfaced (was it paved? I can’t remember) ran downhill steeply enough that strides were more about controlling speed than generating it. Eventually, there was a well marked turn which I’d been warned about. It didn’t look like trail, even a dirt bike trail. It just looked like some dirt had slid and cracked and formed a barely passable opportunity to drop down the steep hillside. A trail materialized shortly thereafter but it was immediately clear that, over 100 miles in, the course had finally decided to show it’s teeth.
The next miles were on broken and rolling dirt. Navigation wasn’t hard so much because there were other trails as it was that the trail I was following was sometimes faint enough that game trails, water courses could, or fake trail corridors could make you think you were at an intersection when you weren’t or draw your attention away from the real course at a turn. Flagging was just good enough but I left my watch on its navigation screen because of the constant reassurance checks I was making.
The course then dropped into a wash. In some places, there was a jeep track from some vehicle which had once visited this place. There was no real trail, though footprints sometimes hinted where others had chosen to go. This was just like being off trail on the Hayduke: follow the wash in whatever way seems best to you then turn off when a double track crosses the wash. Flagging was minimal and I became emotionally dependent on constant navigation checks on my watch. If I’d had to stop and pull out my phone every few minutes, it would have cost me a lot of time and I was thankful for the convenience of being able to turn my brain off and just check my wrist to make sure I was on course.
After the wash was a small dirt road which very gently climbed back up the valley in the direction I’d come. Eventually I turned off that onto single track which wound its way through dense brush near a stream, crossing it here and there, and sometimes trying to guide me into it.
At one point, my sense for, “this is just a little too ridiculous” triggered and sure enough, in an effort to keep my feet dry, I’d gone past the exit from a creek by about 10ft. It only took a minute to find the proper exit but that was a minute of pushing around a trail-less river bottom trying to find the last big of flagging I’d seen. The exit was was obscured by tall reeds, didn’t appear to be flagged, and I mistook it for a break in the bank at first glance. As I’d mused earlier, in this race, the teeth come out after mile 100.
From here, a meandering climb started on a trail which was scratched onto the earth, not cut through it. This meant that instead of contouring in and out to maintain elevation, the trail would bump up and down constantly. It was a poorly maintained trail which was labeled Hop Creek Trail on my GPS and as the day was now warm, it made for an uncomfortable experience. Eventually, I was feeling both the heat (my hat ice was long melted) and mentally fuzzy, so I took a dirt nap in a bit of shade. Despite being surrounded by vegetation, none of it was covered in broad or dense leaves and so the best I could do was hide my face and torso under a medium sized log. There were regular clicks and crashes. Sometimes it was a cow, sometimes it was just the trees. Every time, I assumed it was Chucktown or someone else finally catching up. I hadn’t run a step since the road out of Bridger Jack and found it inexplicable that no one had caught me. After 10 minutes of dirt nap, I continued.
Two challenges were looming in my mind. First was the big climb. The elevation profiles for most of the sections of the race looked scary until you realized that their vertical axis was only a few hundred feet. Not so with this section. Somewhere there was a climb of over a thousand feet in about a mile. After that was a steep descent and a steep climb of slightly shorter elevation change and spread out over a few more miles. Where was that first big climb? I’d noted the offset between my watch and official mileage when leaving Bridger Jack, but it could have changed significantly in the tight spaces on the Hop Creek Trail.
The other concern was water. I’d planned to carry water for the entire section but at the rate I was drinking, I’d be out before the next aid station. If I drank what I wanted, my water bottles would be dry immediately. I had a little left in one front bottle, then 1.5L. I decided that the little bit would have to get me to the big climb, then it was 0.5L for each of the climb, descent, and climb thereafter. I hadn’t noted the mileages of water sources in this section since I hadn’t planned on using them but my map showed a stream a short distance away. Giardia takes two weeks to kick but dehydration causes problems now so I decided to drink from that stream when I got there. If I’d been smart, I’d have planned on soaking in it to reduce body temperature. Ultimately it didn’t matter because the stream was dry. To make matters worse, I missed the obvious exit a few feet away and went for one upstream, only checking my GPS when I realized that an exit would be an obvious place to put flagging and I didn’t see any. So now I was rationing water and off course.
I found my way back to the course, spotted some fallen flagging, and then the proper exit from the stream bed was obvious. From there, the trail continued up a narrow ravine, crossing other dry stream branches. I was trying to look ahead to see which hillside the big climb might take me up. Every time I guessed, the trail turned a completely different direction. Then it crossed open terrain with nothing obviously above it. Finally, my altimeter read about 7000ft, which was the base of the climb and the sharp up out of one particular stream bed kept going up instead of leveling off. Just as the excitement of being allowed to drink my next half liter was hitting me, I realized that I needed to keep rationing it otherwise I might get overly thirsty part way up and start in on the downhill’s water too early. So instead of quenching my thirst, I made water a reward. Every 100 vertical feet would get me another sip. I regularly hike up 1000ft/mi trails back home for day hikes, usually for several continuous miles. Now, this one mile required two sit down breaks. My footsteps were small and slow. I leaned heavily on my poles. I thought the top was at 8000ft but I’d misread the elevation profile and almost despaired when it was obvious that there was more to go. At 8000ft, there was a slight breeze. Somehow the temperature was cooler and I didn’t need another break until the top.
At the top was a notch with a view into the next valley. I wasn’t of the mind to enjoy it, though the view was unique so far in the course: a forested mountainside with a variety of dry greens and browns. The valley drained away to the left and the mountains on the other side had much less vegetation, a strange contrast to their more vegetated counterparts on the near side. I transferred water from my last 1L hard bottle on the back of my pack to the two 500ml front soft bottles. I was slow and clumsy doing this and I didn’t care. I didn’t care if someone passed me now. I didn’t feel tired in my muscles, sleepy, or dull in my mind, but I was tired. Some kind of full system tiredness where no one part seems to be the problem.
But now there was downhill and I knew a secret. While this whole system exhaustion slows my uphill travel to a crawl, it has no effect on my downhill travel. At first I crashed down the steep, loose descent, but after that, I hit a wide, hard-packed, dirt forest road. A clean, smooth running surface. There was an old lady by a truck who gestured at me, pointing. I asked what I could do for her and she asked if I was her grandson. I wasn’t but recognized her grandson’s number as belonging to Bellingham and told her that he’d taken me under his wing near the start and that we’d run together onto Lockhart Basin Road. She said she wouldn’t keep me and I turned to go. What I figured was that if she had been watching the live tracking and come here, perhaps Bellingham was right behind me with Chucktown. It was motivation of a kind, but more so was the the desire to feel strong again. I flew down that road. For the first time in the race, I allowing my legs to push hard, to feel the deep muscle strain which would mean true tiredness but also great power. Normally sub-9 minute miles are nothing to write home about, but when the truck with Bellingham’s grandma passed and she called out, “your keeping a great pace” or something like that, I felt like Hermes.
The final climb was on the same road at the same grade as the descent, about 300ft/mi. It started as the ascent out of ravine with water running down the middle. I had half a liter and the aid station was in three miles so I figured I’d make it without filling up. The grade allowed for a strong walk on relatively straight legs driven from the hamstring and butt which I find to be a faster uphill hiking technique when the terrain allows. Just a mile later, I had to sit down. Full system overload again. I wasn’t sweating profusely or breathing hard. My muscles weren’t tired, my heart wasn’t racing. My belly wasn’t empty. I just needed to sit. A mile later I saw someone. They looked back and spoke a word of encouragement. About a quarter mile from Shay Mountain aid station, volunteers with cow bells and nothing to do had come to look for runners. At the sound of cow bells, I started crying. Cow bells mean you made it. Cow bells mean that everything which just happened is now water under the bridge. Cow bells mean safety, water, food, rest, and an end to striving. “I’ve never run this far. It’s just so good to see people again.” I tried to explain as I stood at the aid station weeping while a medical volunteer asked diagnostic questions and another reset the tracker on my vest for the second half of the race.
Shay Mountain (mi 121.6) to Dry Valley (mi 140.1)
My time at Shay Mountain aid station was slow and inefficient. I had trouble determining clearly what I wanted. I asked for my sleep station bag but forgot to start charging electronics. I ate a little but wasn’t that hungry then decided to take the medical volunteer up on their offer to patch up my feet. I could have done these at the same time. People kept coming up to me and asking if I wanted this or that, sometimes making suggestions like phrased as questions like, “you know what sounds great right now? a hamburger”. Eventually, I asked for a 45min wake-up and curled up in my sleeping bag on a cot in the sleeping tent.
Medical volunteers are the best. At Shay Mountain, one remembered spraying me with sunscreen when they were working the Hidden Valley aid station. Apparently a bright-orange cap is pretty memorable. My mind wandered back to Lockhart Basin Road and I said that the conditions there were disconcerting. The medical volunteer replied that the state of my feet was disconcerting. One blister had almost wrapped itself around almost all sides of a toe. They even explained how the tape job I’d done on myself at Indian Creek had actually caused blisters. There’s something impressive about their desire to serve, unflappable demeanor, and confident professionalism.
Divide, who I’d last seen at Indian Creek, was at Shay Mountain and appeared quite sunburned. We traded a few words but didn’t really engage. He’d had a hard time on the Hop Creek climb as well. He was gone when I was gently roused but the thought that every minute I stayed put me farther behind didn’t push me into a more efficient state of mind. In fact, the thought barely registered. I reset my vest feeling like I didn’t have a clear game plan. How many calories to take? Have I balanced flavors and textures so there will always be something palatable? Did I get sunscreen? No need for ice in the cap, it was late in the day. I started out in the wrong direction but was quickly corrected. Then someone yelled, “DQ” (my trail name – I wasn’t disqualified), and it turned out to be Flyby, a friend of a friend who was supporting Witt, who I’d met earlier. It was a wonderful, if brief, small-world connection. Then I was off, running down a well paved road in the late afternoon and feeling good.
Shortly after turning off onto a jeep track, I encountered Divide. He was walking on a downhill and being so recently after an aid station, I was a little worried. I joined him for a bit and we got to talking. He’d said his head was in a bad place and I hoped that with a little conversation he’d snap out of it and we’d be able to hike through the night together. It started well with him picking it up to almost 4mph. His real name was Jason and I got to hear about some of his background in the military, a little history of mountain warfare, and how he’d wound up specializing in it. I shared some about hiking the PCT and Hayduke. I asked how he’d met his wife. The conversation went on.
We’d checked out 4th and 5th from Shay Mountain and had similar plans: walk all night, keep the aid station stops brief, stay comfortable and survive until the next sleep station at Road 46. I was hoping to get there around sun-up but he was targeting mid-morning or noon. We geared up for the night together but after a little bit I was regularly pulling ahead and he mentioned something about a nutrition issue and sent me on. In the end, you run your own race.
The route seemed to be a rocky 4×4 road on the edge of a steep hillside which would have had sweeping views of a valley. It was night so I didn’t see anything that wasn’t touched by the weak, ghostly beam of my headlamp. I turn down my headlamp to it’s lowest so that the battery will last the entire night. This has always been sufficient for following trails and has the effect of focusing me on the immediate. With less warning about what’s coming, your attention is on your feet, your stride, your body. This kept me in the moment and my thoughts only strayed as far as the next aid station when the track turned into more of a ridge running road which was better graded. As with all aid stations, the final miles drag out. A few hundred yards out, there was a woman by a truck facing towards the edge of the road. She seemed intent on not noticing me which was unusual because most people are are interested when they see a runner. Only as I was just passing did I register the wet mark by her feet and awkward manner of her stance as though she were using a female urinary device. I’ve been around hiking culture long enough to know women can pee standing up, with or without help depending on the technique, but I’m still not used to seeing it.
At the Dry Valley aid station, I didn’t sit down. The next two sections were about a half marathon each, relatively level, and on roads. I was in good spirits and wanted to keep walking. I reset my vest, downed some broth that the volunteers whipped up in a moment, passed a few jokes, and went on my way just before of a truck made a U-turn by the aid-station, kicking up a bunch of dust.
Dry Valley (mi 140.1) to Wind Whistle (mi 153.7)
Most of this section is a straight shot down a very wide dirt road with such a smooth surface that, after jogging for a bit, I played a game of closing my eyes for 10 seconds and opening them for one second to see if I could get any rest while walking. This backfired as it compounded the lack of stimulation presented by the perfectly straight road in flat country of uniform ground cover. My mind began to try to start turning off by body. Running would have helped but I didn’t have the motivation for it and resigned myself to counting down about 11 miles at 4mph. The monotony began to sap my speed and I put on a friend’s irreverent podcast which I reserve for times when I need to break a mental spiral. It didn’t work. Even with just an hour of walking left, the weight of the minutes I was going to have to be conscious before reaching the next aid station felt impossible. Also, a pole broke.
The GPS route shows you entering Wind Whistle shows some kind of trail looping around the back of the camp area, but the signs on the road directed me in the way I was expecting to leave. Someone met me a few tens of yards from aid station where they’d arranged drop bags on each side of the road, but put mine in the middle. I wanted to keep the stop short but asked for real food to go and to deal with everything else after a 15 minute nap. This wasn’t a sleep station but there were cots and blankets which was nicer than a dirt nap. I wound up only taking a few minutes to let my eyes stop buzzing at which point my head felt clear as well. I asked if they had a bag large enough to send my broken pole back with the drop bags and the aid station captain offered to lend me one of her poles which were of the same make and model as mine. It was an incredibly kind offer, especially as these were expensive poles, but I didn’t want special treatment which might be construed as an unfair advantage. I’d been curious about others’ experiences in the last section, and the answer, that there hadn’t been many people through yet, reminded me that, somehow, I was near the front of the race, probably 4th given that I’d passed Jason. I bid the aid station volunteers adieu and walked back out onto the road.
Wind Whistle (mi 153.7) to Road 46 (mi 167.3)
This section was much like the last. It started with running, a clear head, and good spirits. There was a little more variety, though the road was still incredibly uniform. By the end, my vision was blurring slightly, and lagging, so that when I turned my head it would take a second to register what I was looking at. My pace was a little under 4mph though physically I probably could have walked faster. Sometimes my mind would interpret visual cues incorrectly – the subtle darkness behind undulations of the dirt road registered as the bars of a gate across the road. These weren’t true hallucinations since when I focused my headlamp on them, they would resolve correctly. I might have jogged, despite my preference for walking, but the end was slightly uphill and wouldn’t have been worth the energy expenditure. Finally, an hour or two before dawn, I arrived at Road 46. Immediately, my mind was clear again.
The plan had been to get a much anticipated 90min of sleep. After that, I’d have about 24hrs to finish the last third of the race on my third day racing. I found the thought oddly motivating. I’d asked for my sleep station drop bag and was snacking when a volunteer pointed to the sleep station tent and said, “runner 3 is sleeping”. Despite the obvious opportunity to get into 3rd with a head start, I pretty quickly dismissed the idea of shorting my own sleep schedule on two grounds. First, sneaking past a sleeping runner based on information I’d been given and not noticed myself seemed kinda low, because it felt like I’d gotten an unfair advantage. Second, the runner was Chucktown and except for his encounter with dehydration, he’d consistently been the faster runner. I’d never been in this race to win it and had absolutely no interest in a fight for position. With more than 70 miles remaining, an hour head start wouldn’t keep him off for long. I asked for a wake-up in 90 minutes and after a paniced search for a misplaced battery pack, plugged my electronics in to recharge while I did the same.
Road 46 (mi 167.3) to Pole Canyon (mi 184.9)
Chucktown was still at the aid station when a volunteer quietly roused me. I gave him a fist bump and told him to go get third but that I’d be right behind him. I was surprised he was still here but didn’t expect to see him again and I enjoyed the bravado of pitching myself as a serious challenger. He headed out and I packed up my sleep station drop bag and reset my vest, putting ice in my cap despite it just being daybreak. There were two uphill sections which I hoped to tackle in the daylight and two downhill sections which I hoped to finish in the dark. It was exciting to feel like there was a clear plan to get to the finish. Until now, so much of the race had been guesswork that I hadn’t been willing to emotionally commit to any plan beyond getting to next aid station.
I started the section at a slow jog down a highway while eating a breakfast burrito. The course turned on to a broken and tumultuous jeep road. The runner’s manual noted that the trail might be faint but here it was well flagged and eventually the route turned into a clear jeep track with a little grass growing over it. At a low ridge, the track leveled out then ran downhill in a straight line.
On that long, straight downhill, I saw the a unmistakable fluttering of a runner’s cap’s neck drape. The ground rolled slightly and intermittent bushes blocked my line of sight just enough that the runner came and went, but one way or another, Chucktown was inside a half mile, probably a quarter mile, and I was gaining. The hunt was brief and thrilling. I let the downhill carry me faster, catching glimpses of the fluttering blue cap. Then, I saw Chucktown stop and put his hands on his knees. He looked up when I was about 50 yards away but made no effort to run, instead lifting his hand in a wave. I pulled up and asked how he was doing. We walked together, slowly, and he explained that he’d left Road 46 and almost immediately felt pain on the inside of his left knee, something he’d never felt before. He hobbled back and gotten taped up by a medical volunteer. I remember seeing a light brace on his knee along with the KT tape but the memory isn’t clear. I got his real name, Robert, and the full story of Lockhart Basin Road. He’d gotten a few sips of water from passing runners and eventually made it to Breaking Bad where he’d thrown up the water he’d immediately drunk. At that point, he thought his race might be over because if you need an IV, you DNF. Instead, the medical volunteer hold him there were 23hrs until cutoff and to sip water slowly. After an hour and a half, he’d recovered and continued. A volunteer at Shay Mountain had told him he might have had the fastest split coming over the Hop Creek climb which wrecked Jason and me. He’d relished a sweet day dreamed about catching David Goggins in 2nd but since this was his first 200 mile race, he was really just in it to finish. Now the plan was to walk it in at 3mph, and maybe still finish around 70hrs. I asked if there was a chance for a second comeback story since this first was so good and he shook his head. Eventually, he asked if I had stomach issues or anything, and I took it as his invitation to go. I told him I’d go get a lead in case his knee came back and took off running.
The next several miles were along a flat dirt road. I was elated and ran them, even the subtle inclines which would usually have been my excuse to walk. Somehow, I was in a prestigious race and third place was mine to lose. No one had come in to Road 46 while I’d been there and a volunteer had said that the next runner was hours behind. The delusions of grandeur now running through my head were amazing but I suppose flights of fancy are part of the human experience. Despite being an uphill oriented section, the hills were consistently graded which made for easy climbing. For the first time in the event, the climbs felt long enough to be an easy day hike back home. This might have been a problem given that I was now over two days in, but good feelings buoyed me along even when I started wondering when the next aid station might appear.
Arriving at Pole Canyon aid station meant my day was half over (though not the coming night). The volunteers were excited to have something to do. I got my feet retaped, and for the first time ever, lubed. I’d been told that the leukotape used in the previous tape job would tear skin if removed, but it had been sliding and it seemed to come off just fine with under the firm and skilled technique of this medical volunteer. A cook made a plate of eggs, bacon, and guacamole and despite being asked, “are you sure you want all that?” I ate my fill. If a good meal cost me position, so be it. It was an amazing meal, accompanied by an ungodly amount of iced Coca-Cola. Finally, as I was about to reset my vest, someone called, “runner coming”. I was a little dismayed, but it was Chucktown and I was actually glad to see him since it I thought it meant he was feeling better than I’d he’d been. Apparently he wasn’t doing so well since he immediately asked for Ibuprofen. I was about to leave and so gave him my chair since it was the only one in the shade and the day’s allowance of Ibuprofen which I hadn’t touched since the start of the race. The volunteers had someone new to care for and so I thanked them and made to go. On my way out, the aid station captain told me it was 11:45am since he knew that things sometimes blur together for runners. Oh so true.
Pole Canyon (mi 184.9) to Geyser Pass (mi 201.4)
Any time I’d been able to think about the event as a whole, this section was the one about which I’d been most concerned. The trail climbed quickly and sometimes disappeared for short stretches though initially it was well flagged. I moved slowly with a heavy stomach though nearing 10,000ft perhaps the air was thinning too. This wasn’t going to be a run and certainly not a competition. It was just a hike.
The elevation profile I’d printed from the runner’s manual was 6.5 miles long instead of the 16.5 miles which this section covers. My altimeter eventually registered over 10,000ft which wasn’t on the elevation profile. Whatever expectations I’d had for the section were gone. Gusts of wind would rush powerfully in the trees. It hailed briefly. Upward I went, hoping that there wouldn’t be an exposed ridge walk and that they weather wouldn’t get any worse. There was enough blue in the sky that I bet against a storm but not enough blue for me to feel secure that a storm wasn’t coming.
You can only climb for so long before you run out of mountain. Conveniently, the trail flattened out even before that. The leaves had fallen, covering the trail in gold and making for a wonderful late fall landscape. Where the trail was thin, ambiguous, or poorly maintained, this made it hard to decide where to go.
I hadn’t seen much in the way of flagging for some time and understood why GPS had been required. The terrain had dropped and climbed and worked it’s way around to a different side of this complex of mountains. I was hungry and the guacamole wrap I’d packed out was a mess and so would be much easier to eat sitting down. So I sat down, making an impromptu aid station out of stump. It was strange to stop and relax outside of an aid station, but I enjoyed the food and relaxed for a moment like I would have on a hike. After all, that’s what I was on for this section, just a hike. That didn’t keep me from looking back and wondering why someone hadn’t caught up yet. It didn’t feel like I’d been moving much faster than a walk (recently my watch was timing my miles at over 20 minutes) so that even Robert might have caught me if he’d been efficient at the last aid station.
Shortly after lunch, there began a long descent. The trail was frequently faint though there was now some flagging. A sense of déjà vu was growing and was now quite strong. One intersection in particular was choked with fallen trees and the outlet trail overgrown so I had to push through some brush following my GPS closely (the course didn’t quite follow the trail which makes me think that whoever recorded the track did the same thing). One of the signs indicating a right turn at that intersection had fallen over. All of this seemed to match some place I’d been before, but oddly, my memory was of turning left at the intersection and not wishing to be whoever had to follow the bad signage pointing to a trail I couldn’t see.
Later I crossed the top of a small meadow with cows grazing. There was an obvious cross-trail which went over a small bridge near where a couple was sitting. I could have sworn I’d once passed through on the cross-trail. I turned left onto it since the GPS track went left here but had to backtrack because there was another trail which went left but also climbed. The entrance had been hidden by the couple and the flagging to indicate the correct trail to take had fallen under a bush. When I saw the correct trail, I remembered seeing it before and wondering at that time where it went. I guess now I was going to find out.
This later part of the section was much gentler than the first part, the weather was better, and the trail better maintained. After reaching a dirt road and turning onto what the GPS track said would be the last bit of single-track before the walking up a forest road to the Geyser Pass aid station, I calculated that there was 4 to 5 miles remaining. The difference between the total distance traveled as tracked by my watch and the official course mileage seemed to vary so I wasn’t quite sure how much was left in the section. Using a prominent climb and altimeter to find myself on the elevation profile wasn’t an option because the elevation profile was short. Still, relief began to settle in. This had been a section with so many unknowns and now there didn’t seem to be much between me and the aid station.
From three to two miles before Geyser Pass Aid, delusions of grandeur returned. Maybe I’d get to meet the first and second place finishers and we’d all have our photo together, implying I was a similar of athlete to them. I tried to come up with something brief, personal, and complimentary to say to each when I shook their hands. Then I remembered COVID (no hand shaking) and that they’d have finished so much earlier that they’d be snoozing off their sleep deficit when I crossed the finish line. Maybe I’d get to say something on camera instead. I tried to come up with a sound bite or short spiel which could be adapted for length. I wound up thinking about my dad and how he’s always been proud of me when I when I wanted someone to be proud of me, and yet I never felt the stereotypical pressure to live up to expectations. “Dad, you may have an adult son now, it’s wonderful knowing I’ll always be your child” was the one-liner I was going to say while staring seriously into the lens of the video camera transmitting (live of course) to a local TV station. As horribly sappy that may be in retrospect, I was now crying openly from completely sincere emotion. The cows didn’t judge, so you shouldn’t either.
The last mile into Geyser Pass aid station was a strong hike up a well maintained forest road. I was emotionally back together and thinking about the future. Two more sections, both downhill. About an hour until dark. I still had a liter of water and so drank it to avoid spending time at the aid station rehydrating. I left my running vest unbuckled after getting the water bottle. I felt confident. I had swagger. Things were proceeding according to the morning’s plan which had only been a hope 24 hours prior and unimaginable before that.
Geyser Pass (mi 201.4) to Porcupine Rim (mi 223.9)
I was intent on making the Geyser Pass aid stop efficient and started making requests of the first person I saw. This person turned out not to be a volunteer but was kind enough to say something encouraging and direct me appropriately. I didn’t want to get off my feet until my vest was reset. This was a sleep station and sleeping seemed nice but an unnecessary nap would be a stupid way to lose a podium spot. When I finally got off my feet, a volunteer came over, placed a chair opposite and was about to help put my feet up on it when I did so myself. They were surprised I still could. I’m not sure how anyone could go another 40 miles if they couldn’t pick their feet up enough to put them on a chair.
While I was eating a guacamole tortilla (my go-to “real food” of the race), another fellow by the fire pit told me he was crewing Robert. I gave him what info I had on Robert. This fellow was watching a basketball game and so I asked if he could check the live position tracking to see how far away the next few runners were. Apparently Witt was past Pole Canyon Aid. This fellow then told me that he had once put on a 24hr race which Witt had won with 116 miles and that Witt was a former record holder on the Arizona Trail. Witt may have mentioned the AZT when I met him on Lockhart Basin Road but didn’t mention a speed record. That got me off the fence about napping here. I might have a good lead on Witt (it wasn’t clear by how much), but I figured that I wanted four hours to feel secure. Also, the appearance of an insurmountable lead might be demotivating to him and so help me keep that lead. For the first time, I felt like I was making a decision as a competitor in it to win it and not just a hiker here for a good time. The first rule of competition is to respect the competition.
I walked out of the Geyser Pass Aid and onto the road. After some time (longer than the quarter mile which a bystander said it would be), I turned off on a trail which began to descend steeply as night was falling. In the dying light, my weak headlamp wasn’t much help, and I was worried that I’d trip. The trail was broken enough that without good depth perception I kicked a number of rocks and almost fell once. How could this go on for 20 miles? or was it 22 miles? What was the offset between the official mileage an my watch at the previous aid station? Was this downhill going to slow me so much that Witt would see me as a target and not beyond his reach? The trail passed a lake, but it was too dark to really see.
Eventually the descent ended in a forest road which lead to a trail which climbed steeply on large, uneven rocks. I remembered it was about 500ft from the elevation profile but this seemed to be much longer. Déjà vu was returning. This climb seemed familiar, particularly as it began to level out onto a trail which ran near a road. I seemed to remember having joined the trail from that road and looked down at the way I’d now climbed up, and thought at the time that it looked like a hard climb and that I was glad not to have to make it. My déjà vu seems to have a theme: that I was now following a route whose travellers I once pietied. Maybe it was just how I responded to sleep deprivation.
I could see my breath now and for the first time in the race it was cold. My shirt was sweaty and I didn’t think I’d stay warm on the flats and downhills at a walk and so stopped to layer up. I put on everything and was shivering and clenching my muscles for warmth by the time I was done. I’m normally very warm when active but it took several miles of walking and jogging to warm up enough to relax.
Those miles had taken me along a contour which I’m sure would have had a beautiful view in the daylight and onto a broad dirt road. This road walk would continue for the rest of the section and the mental struggle to stay awake and moving became the defining struggle of the event. My walking pace on this well graded downhill dropped below 4mph, and flirted with the same speed Jason had been walking on a downhill, due to mental struggles, at the time I’d caught him. The trees lining the road seemed to have RVs sticking out of the back of them and no matter how intently I stared, they wouldn’t resolve. At one point, a blue and green ghost head expanded out of a rock like a drop of water, looked at me, and dissipated. I put on a podcast episode containing an interview with the designer of my favorite backpacking tent. Everything I ate had caffeine. The weight of the unknown hours remaining to walk the miles remaining was it’s own form of anguish. At first, I remembered walking this road in a dream where there had been more ghosts and more RVs. Then came the turn onto Sand Flats Road and I was convinced I’d been here before. I couldn’t say when as the Hayduke Route doesn’t come this way and that’s my only previous trip in the region.
Eventually, there was another turn onto a section of road which looked on the map like the outline of a person’s face in profile. It was so familiar, though I’m sure I’d noted the shape on a map before. There was such a long ways to walk. Perhaps the incline of the road and side trails reminded me of something on the Hayduke near Bryce? I can’t remember what the podcast was about in this section. I began pulling out my phone to see my if the arrow representing me had made any progress and was always disappointed. Finally the little arrow reached the last straight-away. It was a descent which starts above a highway which it parallels, then and ends below the highway. There were a distant series of lights which looked like parked cars where… where I remembered seeing something under daylight conditions and at the time thought they were a resupply only to realize my path turned under the highway instead of over it. I looked at the GPS track and it appeared to turn under the highway. If you can make accurate predictions about reality based on déjà vu, is it still déjà vu?
I reached the turn to go under the highway but was directed by course markers into the Porcupine Rim aid station. My head cleared. They told me I looked to be in good shape and was lucid. I intended only to reset my vest and continue, but a chair was put under me. A selection of hot beverages were offered and I asked for all of them. I was trading remarks with an solicitous volunteer from Lake Forest, near where I live, when Flyby came around from behind the aid station and dropped into a chair across from me. She was recovering from pacing Witt between Road 46 and Geyser Pass. Not an easy section, but it turns out that Mikaela “Flyby” Osler has a thru-hiking resume longer than mine and the women’s self-supported speed record on the Colorado Trail. Minutes flew by as we chatted about the race, hot drinks showed up, we talked about hiking, and hot drinks were consumed. The conversation expanded to a volunteer who’d had to cancel her PCT hike due to COVID, the day she was supposed to get on the plane to leave. At some point, I became conscious that time was passing (it had been 45 minutes), I reset my vest, and Lake Forest lead me out.
Porcupine Rim (mi 201.4) to Finish (mi 240.2)
I started the final section full of energy. I’d been hoping for a good running surface to fly on but found a wide (good), well used (good) but technical (bad, very bad) off-roading track. I dropped down steps and bounded between rocks. Sometimes a smooth section would open up and I could run for 100ft or so. The predictive déjà vu was strong but not as specific. There were many twists, bumps, and drops for which which I had a premonition and as soon as I saw them, recalled hiking them in rich daylight, not by the ghostly wash of my headlamp.
The initial energy wore off and I had to remember to eat and drink. Eventually, I drank enough that I had to stop and transfer water. For the first time in the race, I had to dig a cat hole and use it. Eventually, after passing through by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) signs (which I remembered), a straighter stretch opened up and I could see lights in the distance which I thought might be Moab, but which I remembered having given me false hope on a previous hike.
The most distinct memory which I was holding on to as a test of this déjà vu was a point the trail appears to continue along a shelf, but then the shelf disappears and you have to drop down a few feet to continue. This came in the second to last part of this section, amid a number of memorable features of the trail which I distinctly recalled, but only after seeing them. Still, I would swear under oath that I’d been here before, but hiking in daylight, not jogging at night.
The home stretch started when the trail came to a road. The road was a slight uphill and in places diverted onto a bike path which seemed bolted to the edge of the road. Whenever I check my watch, I was running close to 10min/mi, about the pace I’d had at the start. I felt strong. I counted down the tenths of a mile on my watch. I turned up my headlamp so I could see everything. The bridge under which I’d have to pass for the final half mile or so didn’t appear where I expected but I only slowed for a moment. My lungs were comfortable, my legs were strong, my heart was fine. It was night and there was no one spectating. I was alone when I spotted Lions Park, alone as I passed under the bridge and turned, alone as I opened my gait on the highway to the Moab RV Park, alone as I turned down the driveway. Just before at the U-turn to face the finish I heard a cow bell. I leaned into that final turn and let myself sprint. I saw the red numbers on the race clock past the finish arch but couldn’t process what they were. I was among the flags of many nations. I was passing under the arch labeled Finish.
There were just a few people at the finish. One had a camera. Look at the camera. Look into the lens. Stop running or you’ll collide with the table. Another person, a beautiful woman with eyes which open wide enough to see the white all the way around the iris just like… oh, that’s the race director and she’s holding a cellphone at you the way people do when taking video. Respond thoughtfully to the questions but don’t get side-tracked. Remember, the goal of an interview is to survive with your character intact. You’re folding your hands hands, palms up, and standing in 3/4 profile like dad does. Bonus points for intelligence, affability, and humor. How to acknowledge accomplishment but present humility? Now you have to pick a buckle. Where’s your executive function when you need it. Just pick one. OK, that took too long. More pictures. More back-and-forth. I’m just a thru-hiker. I’m not a runner. I don’t know how any of this happened.
When the interview was over and the pictures taken, I wound up near a gas fire pit with a few of the volunteers. I got to ask them stuff about themselves. A COO of a small company pointed out a defect in a product from my employer. I heard about what it was like setting up races, “in the old days”. I got to quiz someone on vanlife and since none of us were local we all compared experiences sleeping in our vehicles on the way here. A plate of food which I’d been offered repeatedly but forgotten to pick up was foisted on me. After I was done eating, the volunteer responsible for coordinating something among all aid station (the COO in real life, I wish I could remember anyone’s name), said one of the ham radio operators was willing to give me a ride back to my car, that there were showers in the bath house near the start line, and that I could probably fit my car between the RV (not a hallucinated one) and the Subaru. This was a huge kindness as I’d otherwise have had to walk about a mile back to my car then call around to find a hotel room available at 6am to shower and crash. Instead I got pretty clean (forgot the soap) and warm quickly. They even let me nap in the back of my car even despite there technically not being any race parking allowed. While I’d been lucid and pain free throughout the entire race, I woke up from the nap with swollen ankles, feet, and face. I now felt comfortable operating a vehicle, at least long enough to find a quiet, shaded side street on which to park for my next nap. After that would be breakfast.
I’m prone to long trip reports but since I’m assuming that placing 3rd at the Moab 240 will be the height of my competitive athletic success, I want to remember it. What I’m happiest with was that the podium position enhanced, but didn’t come at the expense of the race experience I wanted. I got to connect with a number of other racers but especially Cynthia, Bellingham, Zach, Jason, and Robert when it made sense to travel together. I remember when the first and second place finishers passed me. I didn’t have to force myself to leave aid stations, I left when I felt like it. The volunteers were fun to chat with and incredibly supportive. It was exciting the several times, I recognized someone from a previous aid station. Meeting Mikaela and Witt separately, then getting more backstory on each was fantastic. The outdoors experience was nice, sometimes even grand, but half the race was at night when I couldn’t see farther than maybe a dozen feet in front of me. I never pushed physically harder than I wanted and felt clear, awake, and present during the days. Staying awake through the nights was a real effort, the true struggle of the event. Arguably, the experience could be summed up as a compressed thru-hike with more discomfort and less fun. Endurance races are compatible with full-time employment, though, and so I’m glad I’ve gotten to try a longer one. Like thru-hiking, it turns out that the human connection is what makes it most special.
On a final note, when I went on Ultra Signup to find out what my official time was (71:23:09), I discovered that the reason my name was misspelled on my bib was because I misspelled it in my Ultra Signup account. That’s embarrassing.