Sunday, September 27, 2015

2015 Wasatch Front 100 Mile Race Report

This all started around mile 90 something at Bryce Canyon 100 Mile last year, as I was climbing up the final thousand foot ascent to finish that race, I found it remarkable that my legs could keep going up, even after 19K ft of climbing and no longer being able to run many miles ago; so that’s where the bright idea that I could potentially finish one of the hardest and oldest Mountain Hundred races in the world popped into my head.  For the past 3-4 years, the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run has been this mythical beast of a race that always seemed so impossible for me to even consider (the name “Wasatch” sounds like some legend to me now…); I just remembered stumbling across its website one day and being instantly hooked with its tagline “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell”, and then being both awed and dismayed by photo’s of its majestic Mountain course and the sheer difficulty of it’s description that promises to “test out the endurance of any runner”.  I mostly shoved all thoughts of Wasatch back into the recesses of my mind afterwards, shunting it into the category of races that are “Possibly 5 years down the road…”, while I worked my way up through the Ultra racing world and trying to build a solid foundation from which I can make a successful attempt someday at all those legendary Hundred Milers I’ve dreamt about.  As the years went by, I found myself being more drawn to Wasatch, and other Mountain races like Hardrock, to the point that they served as a sort of “North Star”, where every race I entered was a stepping stone towards those races; Hardrock is still in my “Impossibly Hard” category of races, but the possibility of Wasatch was getting closer every year, and after completing Bryce, I knew I had to give the race a shot.
As the lottery entry date for Wasatch grew closer, I still didn’t entirely believe I had a good chance of completing Wasatch, that I still had a ways to go before I felt I had the experience to handle such an immense challenge; so partly to work through my doubts, I wrote a huge piece on my whole thought process in signing up for the race, “A Pessimist dreams of the Wasatch Mountains”.  Afterwards, I would accept whatever fate the Wasatch lottery Gods decides for me, threw my hat into the race, and got picked for entry a month later...I was mortified.  I had over 7 months to train for Wasatch after being picked for the lottery, the same amount of time I spent training specifically for Bryce Canyon, more than enough time to get ready for the race if I played my cards right, I figured.  Having managed to finish a tough Arkansas race, the Run LOViT 100K earlier this year in February, uninjured, I was finally convinced that my long festering injuries from Bryce Canyon was behind me, and was looking forward to ramping up my training in two phases.  Phase 1 was to rebuild my speed and endurance in order to tackle an Oregon race, The NUT 100K in June, that had very aggressive cutoffs to meet, afterwards, phase 2 would mostly be power-hiking repeats in order to survive the endless climbs of Wasatch; nature wasn’t quite agreeing with my first plans however.
On my NUT 100K race report, I wrote about how North Texas (where I live), and most of the State, received historic amounts of rain and flooding throughout the spring months, leaving practically no trails to train on for months on end.  My reluctance to run on pavement, during lightning storms and torrential downpours mind you, exacerbated the problem and resulted in a DNF at the NUT 100K.  Woefully under-trained by the summer, it almost seemed hopeless with only around 3 months to get ready for Wasatch, but I had one glimmer of hope left heading into Wasatch, and I would take to it with abandon.
My entire plan for Wasatch depended on conditioning my arms and shoulders over the summer months to utilize my trekking poles more effectively over longer distances, because after the NUT 100K, where I only had one brief training run prior with the poles, I realized just how much of an advantage they were in surviving long climbs…but they were murder on your shoulders and arms if you’re not properly trained with them, as I found out in just 20 miles of that race in Oregon.  Also, since I couldn’t train for speed and endurance much during the beginning of the year due to all the floods, I figured my only hope was to double down on power-hiking repeats over the summer in order to survive the long climbs and grind it out to the finish.  Starting in mid June, I gradually brought up the amount of weekly climbing I could handle from around 5K ft of gain/loss, all the way up to 12K ft of gain/loss by late August, and hitting just about the same gain/loss for Hardrock 100, around 34,000ft gain/loss, for that month; all while suffering in the miserably hot and humid Summer months of Texas…it was good training for a potentially hot race in Wasatch I told myself, while I was trudging up the same handful of what passes as hills here in North Texas, at Cedar Ridge Preserve, for 7+ hours in the heat each weekend.
I was responding well to the poles, and felt like I could keep climbing forever with them, no matter how fatigued my arms and shoulders felt.  There were a couple things that worried me going in to Wasatch though, first was a minor ankle sprain that I incurred during the second to last peak training week, four weeks out from the race, which forced me to completely shut down all running during the taper period in order to fully heal the ankle.  I prefer a gradual ramp down in mileage during the taper period, heading in almost completely cold (I did do some long hiking trips during those weeks), was not something I’m use to.  Also, I had gone through two Black Diamond Distance Z (first the Carbon fiber, than the Aluminum) trekking poles during those heavy training months, they just couldn’t survive the abuse of the Texas heat and humidity, I suppose.  I loved how ultralight those Black Diamond poles were, I absolutely could not risk having one break down on me again during the middle of Wasatch though, so I sprung for a pair of Leki Micro Vario Ti Core-Tek Aluminum-Copper poles, a brand known for their rock solid reliability, but at 18.5 ounces per pair, they were nearly half a pound heavier than the Black Diamond’s were, and during the later stages of Wasatch, I felt every one of those extra ounces.
Arriving at Salt Lake City the day before Wasatch for the pre-race meeting and placing drop bags, I was out exploring the local park the gathering was being held at, Sugar House Park, which had a magnificent view of the Wasatch Mountain range in the distance.  While there I ended up losing track of time while trying to get a better unobstructed view of the Mountains, and had to sprint about a quarter mile in order to catch the last half of the pre-race meeting; bad idea it turns out, to sprint (which is something I almost never do) on cold legs that had been tapering for the past 3 weeks…  The morning of the race (a friend whom I was staying with drove me to the race), inexplicably, that little sprint left my legs already feeling sore before I had ever step foot on the Wasatch course!  The first four and half miles of Wasatch was one of few flatter and runnable sections of the whole course, I was planning to warm up my legs here, but fretted the whole time that I started out the race with a huge deficit after my dumb mistake with the sprint the day before.  Soon though, the huge 4-5K ft climb up to Chinscraper at mile 9 and half was coming up, and hopefully that long 5 mile long slog up the Mountain will stamp out the initial soreness.

Foreboding Mountains in the distance...
The night-time and early morning views of Salt Lake City under neath were fantastic.

The moment I had been training for all summer had finally arrived, I was particularly fearing this first monster climb of Wasatch, and is one of the main reasons (the other being the climb up to Brighton…) why I had been power-hiking with the trekking poles all summer like a Madman.  Not only is there NOTHING like this in the flatlands of North Texas, you also only have 7 hours to make it to the Francis Peak aid station at mile 18 and half, which doesn’t sound like anything to worry about, but I later learned after the race that there was a record amount of DNFs this year from people missing that first cutoff!  With cool morning temps in the Mountains, and strong and rested arms, I broke out the poles and went to work; my objective was to make it to Chinscraper in 3 and half hours, and with the early traffic jam during the first couple miles of the race with 300+ runners crowding onto the single track trails, I was already running quite behind.  The whole time up, I felt like a machine built for this specific task, as I was averaging a steady and brisk pace in the low to mid-twenties for the 5 mile trip up, and started to pass many other poor souls without trekking poles (I did feel like cheating a bit…but whatever) for the first time in the race.  I met my initial goal for the race just under my target of 3 and half hours, right after crawling up the 45+ degree angle cliffs to make it up to Chinscraper; after enjoying some views of the Mountain Valley below, I pressed on.  

On the way up to Chinscraper...
...there were many spectacular views to be had.

Looking down from Chinscraper.

For the next 5 miles, I was already starting to sweat the cutoffs (a recurring theme for the rest of the day), as I was making the up and down climbs on top of the Mountain ridgelines at just over 9K ft altitude, where I was getting a taste of what’s to come; the trifecta of tough climbs, high altitude, and the ever increasing heat under the exposed sun.  My heart was exploding inside my chest trying to keep a steady 20+ minute pace on these tough climbs, while I was practically hyperventilating trying to suck down enough oxygen up there to feed it.  I was finally able to relax upon reaching the 4 mile smooth dirt road downhill to Francis Peak Aid Station at mile 18 and half, and with my legs feeling better with the initial soreness at the start of the day stamped out, I cruised down to make that first cutoff with an hour to spare.  

Starting to see the Great Salt Lake in the distance.
Stopped for my only self photo of the race.
Still more climbing to do...

One of the Francis Peak Radar Domes overlooking the Great Salt Lake
My jaw was constantly dropping from these amazing views of the Wasatch Mountain range extending on to the horizon...
On the dirt road down to Francis Peak Aid Station

The trip to Bountiful B aid station at Mile 24 was pretty uneventful, but it was approaching noon when I left Francis Peak, and after a few more hours I found that I just couldn’t run much anymore.  All the flat dirt roads were entirely exposed, and most of the time, a brisk power-walk was all that I can manage to keep my heart-rate under control.  More of the climbs on this section, and on towards Grand Peak Trail junction at mile 31, were thankfully under tall Spruce, Fir, and Aspen trees, and there were even some creeks along the way that I could cool off in, but that didn’t make the climbs any easier, as I was huffing and puffing away, like the Little Engine that could, in peak afternoon temps in the low 90s.  I wish I could have taken more pictures along this pleasant wooded stretch (a nice break from all those magnificent Mountain views...), but once I started on the many frequent climbs here, I had to keep the momentum going till I reached the top of a hill, and didn’t want to stop and pull out the camera for a photo.

This section was a good mix of flat open dirt roads...
...pleasant forest covered sections...
...and tough climbs.

The descent from the peak of that long climb at just under 9K ft altitude on Mile 31, towards the Swallow Rocks aid station at mile 34 and half was a very frustrating one.  The trails were very overgrown, and it was hard to see where your foot was landing; many small rocks were hidden underneath all that overgrowth and that kept my pace short, choppy, and conservative in fear of exacerbating my earlier ankle sprain.  So, instead of hoping to extend my buffer from the cutoffs on the long downhills, I reached Swallow Rocks with only about an 1:45hr to make the next 4 and half miles to meet the hard cutoff at Big Mountain Pass at 14:30hrs.  Fortunately, the trails were a lot smoother along the way, and the 800 ft drop down into the Big Mountain Pass Aid Station in about a mile was mostly smooth switchbacks that was very fun to descend; I came in and out of the Aid Station (grabbed my headlamp and a pullover sweater from my drop bag) with about 26 minutes to spare, and hoping to extend that cutoff cushion with a big descent coming up in about 3 miles, but little did I know, I’ll be reaching what’s known as the armpit of Wasatch.

These sweeping views along this section never gets old...

After a couple of tough 300-400 ft climbs over a few miles that I thought would never end (kept thinking the descent was just around the corner...), I came out of forest cover and back onto the Mountain ridges with one last opportunity to take in the amazing views of the expansive Wasatch Front Mountain range during the sunset; the photo’s below perfectly captures the reasons why this flatlander from Texas pushes himself so hard to be in the Mountains, to experience the joy, awe, and majesty that one only can after traversing 40+ Rugged and Mountainous miles to earn those views.  Afterwards, nightfall quickly arrived, right on time to experience possibly the worse 3 miles of the entire course, where you descend steeply over a thousand feet across a minefield of baseball size rocks and loose dirt that will repeatedly put you on your ass.  I was using my trekking poles a lot on the downhills here to keep myself from slipping too much, and was so afraid to run over this extremely technical section in the dark and with fatigued legs, that I power-walked the entire three miles to the Alexander Ridge Aid Station, and promptly sat down thinking my race was over if I had to go through a brutal section of trail like that again.

Among the many imposing climbs along the ridgelines...

The joy, awe, and majesty of being on the Wasatch Mountains in one photo.

I had never done so much power-walking for a race in my life up until this point at Wasatch, I power-walked for large stretches in the brutal afternoon heat when running was no longer an option, and I power-walked some more through endless miles of overgrown technical trails that were too dangerous to run, and then I power-walked over even more dangerous and extremely rocky trails at night, guess what I never trained for when it came to Wasatch?  That’s right, power-walking, I trained endlessly for the climbs and a fair amount of running for this race, but never power-walking, and it was placing pressure on muscles and bones that normally don’t get activated much.  So when I sat down at the Alexander Ridge Aid Station, my legs started to fall apart from the crushing fatigue due to power-walking a good third of the race, possibly.  I took a little more time than usual to leave that aid station, after sitting for awhile eating hot broth with crackers trying to get some life back in my legs.  The Volunteers there assured me the next 5 and half miles to Lamb’s Canyon was pretty smooth compared to the previous three, so I got up with around 2:40hrs left in the clock, but still feared I may not make it to Lamb’s Canyon with any meaningful time cushion to rest before I had to get out of there to beat the midnight 19hr cutoff.

Boy was the the first two miles or so out of Alexander Ridge the most boring section of the course, and if you’re ever planning to do Wasatch, plan on doing this section at night, because there’s really not much to miss here; it’s just an extremely overgrown jeep road that’s used to service oil pipelines, and goes in a disconcertingly long straight line for two miles before you get back onto single track trails.  With flat trails and the temps dropping fast at night, I was running again at a brisk pace until the trails gradually started climbing again, and after really not using my poles much for the past six miles when it was mostly descents and flats, I started to notice just how fatigued and sore my arms and shoulders were beginning to feel, making very nervous about tackling the huge climbs past Lambs and onward to Brighton.  When I reached the 50 Mile mark, I was dismayed at my time of just under 17 and half hour, when I was initially hoping to hit Lambs, another 2 and half miles away, at under 17 hours total…I stumbled into Lamb’s Canyon Aid Station half ready to quit.

Lamb’s Canyon looked like a M.A.S.H unit filled with stricken faced runners, and their crew and pacers, all contemplating whether to press on or drop, all knowing of the demoralizing climbs ahead in the dead of night awaiting them while they try to keep one foot ahead of the cutoff monster.  When I came into Lamb’s, I knew that if my friend was going to be there, I would have dropped and asked for a ride back, because my quads were being hit with the onset of soreness on top of massive fatigue, and in my past experiences, my legs weren’t going to last much longer in those conditions; it was after 11pm though, way too late to have seen her while she was volunteering there earlier.  Instead, with amazingly 45 minutes left before the cutoff, I got my drop bag and sat down and bided for time by eating ramen, slowly putting on more layers, and chatting with the volunteers there; hoping a 20-30 minute rest will return some life back onto my legs to continue.  As the midnight cutoff was fast approaching, one by one, I saw runners, some who were previously looking half dead, resurrected from their death-chairs and marched off into the night, and while I still didn’t feel like my legs were adequately recovered, I got up myself and finally left Lamb’s 15 minutes before the cutoff.  Whether I was up to it or not, the Upper Big Water Aid Station was 8 and half miles away at mile 61, and if I couldn’t finish the Wasatch 100 Mile...well, the unofficial “Wasatch 100K” doesn’t sound so bad as a consolation prize...and not like I had a ride back anyway.

I felt like I had made a huge mistake the moment I left Lambs, the first two miles out was all pavement that felt extremely hard on my feet after over 52 and half miles of trails, and I sorely wished I had packed my pair of the maxxed cushioned Altra Olympus in my Lamb’s drop bag, instead of the one I had all the way at the Brighton Aid Station at mile 75.  With the cold wind blasting in my direction from being at the bottom of this canyon, so glad I packed those extra layers, I walked the entire two miles of pavement with another runner in his 60s with his pacers; periodically he would heave over and not sure if he could continue, I wanted to suggest he should turn back to Lamb's but held my tongue, and this continued on a few times when we finally got off the pavement and onto the big hump of a climb on the way to Upper Big Water.  On the climbs, I finally trudged on ahead of them, thinking I would never see him and his pacers again, but after a short while of struggling on the climbs with my shoulders starting to get achingly sore from using the poles so much, the 60 something year old surged ahead of me and I never saw him again; who was the old man now, I thought to myself, wanting to cry. 

I just experienced a complete meltdown the rest of the way through to Upper Big Water, with my entire body being hit with crushing fatigue and soreness, I couldn’t even manage a power-walk anymore and started to sit down for a few moments on every log I came across to recover my legs and question my sanity.  The steep trip down from this climb was laughably slow, as I had to use my trekking poles for balance and braking, taking me nearly an hour and half just to inch down the mile and half long descent!  Once I made it onto the hard pavement of the road, I was full on zombie mode to make the long and demoralizing 3 mile trip, and thousand foot climb, to UBW; nearly falling asleep on my feet many times along the way and wanting to hail a ride from the passing cars to the aid station.

Officially, I arrived at Upper Big Water Aid Station at 23:04 hrs, 4 minutes over the cut off, and had no choice but to DNF...not that I wanted to continue anyway if I managed to squeak in just under it; mentally and physically, I was too broken to continue.  At UBW, there was a chair at the DNF drop circle waiting for me to heat up by the stove, a half dozen other runners were passing the time there waiting for the last shuttle to drop us off to wherever we needed to go.  Pretty much all of us wanted to drop at Lamb’s, but just had to make sure and remove all remaining doubt that there was any way we could’ve made the climb up to Brighton, otherwise known as the Morg, by death marching the incredibly long 8 and half miles to UBW; if you’re struggling mightily to make the big climbs here, there’s just no way you can fathom soldiering on to Brighton and beyond, making the DNF all the more justifiable.  Once the shuttles arrived, and dropped us off, one of the runners there gave me a ride back to my friend’s place; not the ending to Wasatch I was hoping for, to say the least.

I truly thought I had this one, I had never trained harder for a race, I felt like a man on a mission tackling hill repeats for 7+ hours each weekend in the godawful Texas summer for nearly 3 months straight; I wanted to fully experience and finish Wasatch so badly, that the suffering itself in training became oddly...enjoyable, as if it was my whole purpose in life to prove myself worthy enough to the Wasatch Mountains in order to transcend across it’s majestic range for a 100 miles.  In the end, either it wasn’t enough, or it was just too much, as the training I was putting myself through left me utterly exhausted by the time I tapered 3 weeks out from Wasatch, and also left me with a sprained ankle to mend.  Looking back now, at all the months of training leading up to Wasatch, I have so much areas of concern to mull over as I try to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, and how best to overcome those challenges if I’m ever going to make another run at Wasatch.  I realize now that it was a mistake to focus so much of my training on just the final 3 months before the race, I blame the horrible weather for much of the first half of the year for that, but in all honesty...there was laziness and denial on my part too, that I could keep pushing off the huge commitment I had gotten myself into till the weather was dry enough to train on the trails again, when I clearly knew I should have just sucked it up and join a gym for treadmill training that would’ve done much to improve my speed and endurance during the year; my DNF’s at the NUT 100K and earlier at Ouachita Trail 50 Mile made that point clear enough.  

Other little things, like using heavier hiking poles that I wasn’t use to before the race, when I should’ve heeded the oft-repeated warning to never try anything new during a race, never rang more true, when using the poles very late into the race sent piercing shockwaves to my shoulders everytime I striked the ground.  I shouldn’t have worn my Altra Lone Peaks 2.0 to start Wasatch, when past experiences always resulted in my legs breaking down past the 50 mile point due to less cushioning; I decided not to wear my Altra Olympus, which got me through Bryce Canyon 100 last year admirably, because of fears of exacerbating my prior ankle sprain due to the high stack height of the shoes on technical courses, but with all the power-walking I was doing, the huge cushioning would’ve helped tremendously in preserving my legs past Upper Big Water.  Which reminds me, I seriously need to put more emphases on the necessity of training for power-walking in Hundreds, you think I would’ve figured this out by now after 3 previous Hundred attempts (2 finishes, one DNF), but it’s just not something you ever consider, until you find yourself not being able to do nothing much other than power-walking in the middle of a tough Hundred Miler.  With so much of my focus on Power-hiking, and my newfound emphasis on Power-walking, I can’t keep forgetting to throw in good ‘ol speedwork into the mix either, especially to get my heart-rate going, as my heart wasn’t use to being so over-taxed while making those huge climbs at high altitude and heat.  

I should have researched Wasatch more, other than just looking at the elevation profile (I partly feared knowing too much would lead to paralysis...ignorance is bliss), I may have realized the necessity of all the points I laid out above if I had done so.  I also have to face the sober reality that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for Wasatch, that I had simply bitten off more than I could chew.  I knew from the start that Wasatch was a huge gamble before I ever entered the lottery, that it would’ve been a grinding war of attrition while battling cutoffs all day, and maybe that mindset was my first huge mistake.  A back of the pack strategy is a fool Man’s game, it leaves no room for error and terrible racing conditions, from the get-go I should have believed that under the best of conditions I could’ve finished the race in 32-33 hours, leaving enough of a buffer for the terrible conditions and bad luck should it come on race day; of course, I may not have entered Wasatch in the first place if I had that mindset, knowing that I was not physically capable of such a feat at the time, my impulsiveness of wanting to experience Wasatch clouded my judgment, and I ended up having no choice but to rely on such a risky gambit to finish.  

One last thing I realized that I desperately needed to finish was a Pacer, someone that I could’ve focused on, rather than on my doubts, and to prod me along whenever I wanted to sit down on a log and weep; in hindsight my legs were only part of the problem, mainly my will to continue just wasn’t there to push me through the most difficult spots in the race. I was awed by the older runner, with his pacers, pushing ahead me when it seemed like he couldn’t make it another mile just moments before, and after the race, I knew just how much of a miracle worker a good pacer can be, when a friend managed to gut through a finish just under the final cutoff, making Wasatch his first ever Hundred Mile finish, as amazing as that sounds.  I had asked a friend, who previously paced me before, kicking my ass all over an Arkansas race a couple years ago, but she couldn’t make it at the last moment; I thought of asking around for locals willing to pace me through the dreaded night portion (the friend who I was staying with at Utah, may have been able to pace me the final 25 miles if I had made it), but I have a stubborn go-it-alone independence streak when it comes to Ultras, and decided I could tough it out...a final costly mistake.  

The Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run has been a mythical creature that I’ve been chasing for nearly 4 years now, so not being able to finish this race has been a huge blow to my ego after training and hyping the race so much leading up to it.  As with all tough DNF’s, my experience at Wasatch, most especially, has been a valuable one; there is simply no way to take “shortcuts” with this sort of Beast, like I tried and failed to do with pushing all my heaviest training into just 3 short months, I needed to be 100% committed the moment I entered that lottery, and not accept any excuses along the way, any less effort would most likely lead to failure.  I vow to come back to Wasatch someday to finish this race, it may not happen next year, but when I feel I’m fully ready to make a successful run at it again, and I certainly have lots of mistakes and shortcomings to ruminate over before that happens.  As I wrote in the beginning of the year, in my “Pessimist dreams of the Wasatch Mountains” post, when I pictured what my ideal Mountain Hundred would be like, a brutally tough and just as gorgeous and majestic of a race, Wasatch had exactly fit that description to a T, and I heard the last 25 miles of the race was even more of an incredible’s something that’ll be dreaming about running some day for a long, long time.