I’ve never wanted to quit so bad in my life.
At 10,600’ on the top of Vail Pass, and 33 miles into the race, I was leading the UROC 100km. But I had worked way too hard to get to that point. A fierce pack of world-class mountain-ultra-trail runners were right behind me: Rob Krar, Dakota Jones, Killian Jornet. They differed in age from 22 to 36, but all had run 100-milers before and all had experience in the snow. And we were running fast!…and Hard!…too hard …(for me).
After a frigid 20-degree start outside of the Vertical Runner store in Breckinridge, CO, I had lead the charge up the first climb of the day to an altitude of 11,000 feet. We hit a couple inches of snow right away and I wanted to make sure the pace was kept “honest.” In retrospect this was probably a poor choice as with longer races those who start in the lead seldom end in the lead, but I took advantage of the uphill to make sure we had a gap on the chase pack.
Early on my legs felt rigid, stiff, and tired. Later on in a race I usually hit a patch of miles where my legs actually (kind of) feel “good,” light and fast. This never happened; things only got worse. We rolled into the streets of Frisco about 15 miles into the race where Killian, Dakota and Rob were almost a minute ahead of me. I made up a good 30-40 seconds on the road after stopping for a bathroom break in the woods.
Soon, we were running up the Colorado Trail between the 10-mile traverse range at an altitude of close over 12,000 feet. The four of us were together, breaking through snow drifts that varied from 6 to 16’’ in depth. I reached for a hat that I had zippered into my jacket pocket. No luck! The zipper was frozen shut. I pulled my UD gel flask and tried to squeeze out some sugar…also no luck! The gel was solid from the sub-freezing temps.
Rob, Dakota, and Killian were all more comfortable on the snow. As I followed them across a ridge trying to keep my balance in the white stuff, I noticed how much more efficient they were than I was. I fell a couple times. This ridge was frustrating for me because one month prior I had run this section of trail and could absolutely fly on it in the hot summer sun. Not today.
Approaching the Copper Mtn. aid station around mile 27 I noticed that momentous pressure had formed in my lower gut. I stopped for another pit-stop in the snowy woods and lost a glove (don’t ask!). Feeling a bit sick and already quite fatigued I drew from the energy of the crowd as I entered the aid station. My girlfriend Sandi was there offering support and filming; my parents were crewing for me, and my cousins and aunts were also cheering in attendance. I couldn’t let them down! The short road section of the course was just ahead and I willed myself to get back into the race, try to warm-up, and ingest some calories.
Hitting the paved bike path up to Vail Pass was a refreshing change of pace for me. I instantly closed the gap on Killian, Dakota and Rob but it took a very significant effort. I knew inside that the winner of the race would come from this pack and I wanted to still me in the mix of things despite feeling like total crap and on the edge of blowing up. Even though the paved section of the course is “fast” I still could not dip under 7:00 per mile because of the slight uphill grade, cold wind and altitude of 10,000. It was a far cry from the mechanics and running style from my road marathon days of clicking off 5:15 miles at sea level. Running this intensity 30 miles into (what turned out to be) a 66 mile race really came down more to strength and aerobic conditioning…Rob, Dakota and Killian had tons of that!
Things really started falling apart after Vail Pass around mile 33. My ultra-supportive parents were out in the cold wind crewing for me, excited that I was leading the race. It was later reported that I had “slurred speech” when I spoke to them, and I really struggled to put on a jacket they had out for me. My dad asked if I was “doing okay?”…I said “no” and took off…
On bike path descent for the Two Elk trail Rob Krar put in a big move that opened up a minute or two on me. I slowed to 6:30ish miles, my legs slowly losing mobility and my thoughts fuzzy. Killian and Dakota slowly and steadily edged past me, giving chase.
As the miles clicked by I thought about Sandi waiting for me at the next aid station..a remote location that required a two-mile hike in from the road. I couldn’t wait to see her!
Near the two Elk trail turn-off around mile 40 I saw Dakota break away from Killian. We were all spread out now. Seeing Sandi at the aid station gave me just enough energy to continue on as I was already felt defeated, hypoglycemic, and ready to throw in the towel. Being 40 miles into a 100km is always a humbling experience, but knowing that I still had a big climb up into the snow again made me cringe with fear. I started questioning myself: “Can I even make it to the finish?” and “How many guys (or gals) are going to catch me today?”
From then on it was basically a slog/walk for the last 25 miles of the race. My competitive juices were still flowing, but I was helpless and without gears when Cam Clayton and Ryan Ghelfi blew by me on the way to Minturn. They ran smart, well-paced races and moved up the field very well. Another wave of nausea swept over me as I hiked through the snow on the ski slopes above Vail. I had recognized this part of the course; I had prepared and trained on it twice before….but not in these conditions, and not in a state of bonking, stomach distress, and ultimate fatigue.
The steep descent down to Minturn was brutal mainly because it was when I realized the race was probably going to be 4-5 miles longer than anticipated. Already fighting to keep myself upright on the more technical trail sections of rocks and mud, I started struggling with finding motivation to even finish the race. Seeing Sandi, my parents, and relatives in Minturn snapped me out of the “world of hurt” I was in, as I tired to control my shallow breathing and dry heaving at the downtown aid station. I couldn’t stand the thought of another gel so I grabbed some potato chips to stuff in my mouth but ended up dropping most of them on the ground. Sandi jogged out of the aid station with me for a few blocks as I struggled with a new bottle of coke. I realized at that point the only thing that I thought sounded tolerable to injest was water.
Climbing out of Minturn into the final 10 miles of the course was the most brutal experience in my ultra-running career. The slight uphill, smooth, trail proved to be too difficult for me to run on…so I walked. At times I mustered up the energy to run 100 feet or so “to the next yellow Aspen.” Eventually this pattern of run-walk also became too difficult so I decided that I’d sit down on a comfy-looking log on the side of the trail for a minute or two. The sit felt good, and I stared off into the trees and grass of a nice meadow listening to running water of a nearby creek…. But then reality kicked in: I was going to get caught! I needed to move! Slowly I started walking again, but the effort seemed insurmountable. I thought about Sandi and my parents and aunts all waiting for hours in the cold at the finish line for me…I had to finish before the sun set!
Near the crest of the climb about three quarters of a mile from the final aid station Buzz Burrell from Ultimate Direction came running down the trail to make sure I hadn’t collapsed in the bushes somewhere (I easily could have). He filled me in on the details of how Rob Krar and caught Dakota right at the crest of the hill and then made a decisive move by accelerating across the top and down the final switch backs. I could only wonder in awe how those guys had so much strength left in their legs after what I had been suffering through for the last 10.5 hours. Eventually, with Buzz’s encouragement, I was able to muster up a slow jog as I begun my descent down to the finish (after reloading with a single pretzel and a cup of water at the final aid station).
With my 11hr finish I secured my 2nd place overall standing in the World SkyRunning Ultra Series (Killian Jornet won), and set a personal best for distance and duration that I’ve spent in a race. Since I suffered for so long and bonked so hard I have definitely have a newfound respect for those who gut it out and walk (or crawl) to the finish after double-digit hours of fighting out in the dark cold. It is a tough test of perseverance!
Why did I perform so poorly? Well there are lots of variables at play in these longer races (and I am still pretty new to the sport) but after some reflection I think these things may have played a factor:
1. Getting lost on the trails in what turned out to be a Long Run 4 days before the race probably didn’t help taper/refresh my legs.
2. The three weeks of 100 miles a week and 20k vert probably didn’t kick in yet and perhaps made me even more tired. Too little too late and not specific training enough!
3. I got really cold, I burned a ton of calories at altitude (still more than I think) and I had some GI distress (perhaps from the altitude and nerves and/or something I ate).
4. I was overtrained and undertrained. I was overraced and underexperinced. It’s been long year…100km is a long race for me and it was my third one for this year. I haven’t had more than a full 1.5 months to do a slow build-up for any given race this year.
5. I’m not comfortable in snow or up high in the mountains (yet). I just moved to Colorado a year ago!
I was feeling so sick upon the completion of the race that I pathetically couldn’t even muster up the courage to take a sip of the Avery IPA that Sandi had brought to the finish line for me. [note: I usually love to indulge in some tasty beer drinking and sharing like I did at Tarawera, Lake Sonoma and Speedgoat] Even a couple hours later I only managed a couple bites of cheesy enchilada as I passed out in bed (unknowingly missing an awards ceremony).
In my 15 years of competitive running I’ve had some pretty bad races, but this UROC may take the cake as my worst blow-up ever (probably because it is the longest race I’ve done!). I’ve been lapped during an indoor 5km on the track, I’ve been chicked by Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe in the NYC Marathon, I’ve Dnfed three times, I’ve been a sitting duck at races like Sierre-Zinal, but the battle with myself just to finish has never been so difficult. It was a humbling experience….and always a learning experience.
Hats off to Krar and Jones for making the 2013 UROC 100km a really exciting race! Those two had super impressive, strong runs on what I thought was a very tough and fair course.
I’d like to thank Sandi, my family, my relatives from Denver, and my sponsors for supporting my running endeavors. It was a long day out there for all of us! Also, thanks to those of you who read this and have followed along in my adventures – I really appreciate your support!
Finally, I’m excited to announce that my new film project “MUT Runner” has been successfully funded on Kickstarter! Thank you so much to those of you who have donated and/or spread the word! It really is a dream come-true and I look forward to sharing more creative energy about running in the coming year. Here’s the preview from YouTube:
Thanks again, and see you on the trails,