07 October, 2009

The Bear 100 race report

I am always amazed and impressed by those runners who quickly get out race reports with lots of details about pace, what happened between aid stations and how they felt minute-by-minute for 24+ hours. So if that’s what you like to see in a race report, you shouldn’t spend much time with this one. But if you like headlines, here’s mine The Bear 100: Long, Hard and Worth The Effort. This report it a little long; forewarned is forearmed.

I went into this race with a strange mix of prepared and terrified. I had worked hard to get ready for Leadville 100 in August, which I completed in 2004, but for some very smart reasons, I didn’t finish this year. I had hurt my back two weeks prior and despite rest and drugs and a sense of being ready, I clearly wasn’t. After leaning to the right at a 30 degree angle for most of the first 50 miles, the back spasms started and I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. So I left Leadville with my first Did Not Finish (DNF) and my tail a bit between my legs, though I know I made the right decision. It was harder on my crew (Becca, Taylor and Laura Macie) than on me, I think.

The day we were leaving Leadville, we ran into Errol Jones. He has run almost every 100-miler out there, though he’s clearly partial to The Bear where he’s one of the co-race directors. He painted a great picture of the course and the people. While it was too soon to decide whether or not I was up for it, the seed was planted.

The real driver for this summer’s 100-mile effort was to complete a qualifying race for the Hard Rock 100 in Silverton, CO. This is the pinnacle of ultra running for me but there are only a handful of races out there that, upon completion, allow me to put my name in the HR100 lottery. With a DNF at LT100, I didn’t have that many choices.

So with incredible, as always, support from Becca, I signed up for the Bear in mid-September. There was no chance to run any hills or get up early to Logan UT to acclimate at what would be, by far, the ultra with the most gain/loss of any run I had ever attempted. And with an average elevation of 7500 and topping out at 9000, the Bear is not to be underestimated.

And then there was the weather. Usually, the Bear is pretty cool (a few years ago it snowed enough to shut down roads to aid stations), this year’s run looked to be one of the hottest on record. I get plenty of hot weather running in Dallas and an 85+ day or two didn’t sound that appealing combined with so much climbing. It made the packing interesting and in the end we just put it all in there from singlets to gloves, rain coats to sunblock. Far better to have it and not need it…

We arrived on Thursday and the drive up to Logan was beautiful. The leaves were fantastic with red maples down low and golden aspens at higher elevations. We connected with another couple from Dallas, Chad and Julie Armstrong, to drive as much of the aid station route as we could. The Bear was Chad’s third 100miler but his first real mountain race and Julie was very concerned about knowing what to do as his crew. Becca was very keen to know the route and quite concerned that we only had time to make it to the 45 mile mark before we had to leave for the prerace meeting.

The prerace meeting was very low key and we ran into the Texas contingent, including Lynn Ballard from Dallas, who ran a terrific race at sub 31 hours. We also had a chance to talk with Errol, who is in charge of aid stations for the Bear and planning his 11th start there. He said the fall colors were not at their peak but that we were in for a real treat on the course.

Heading back to Logan, prerace jitters began to really set in. I was a little freaked out about what to eat; even more so than usual. I was really trying to go into Friday morning with my “stomach empty and muscles full” to minimize any issues during the race. I had some pasta while packing bags and talking through things with Becca. She might not like to run but she has a lot of insight and experience at knowing what I might need and when. She knows more than I do about it sometimes!

We were in bed by 9:30 and I had my alarm set for 2am to get up and drink a Boost before the real wake-up call at 5. Getting up both times was easy and I felt really good when we left at 5:20 for the start. It was a little cool but I started the day with a t-shirt and my camelback filled with water bottles rather than the bladder, lots of food, sunglasses and a singlet. I don’t like running with the bladder because it’s too hard to tell how much I'm drinking. I wouldn’t see Becca till 20 miles, though there was a runner-only aid station at 10 miles, so I wanted to have all my gear with me.

It didn’t take long on the steady climb out of Logan to see the beautiful valley come to life with the sunrise. After about 6 miles of mostly uphill, I stopped and prepped for a warmer day. Changing clothes is a little easier with such a fantastic view. I was moving well and enjoying the various conversations with runners from all over the country. I pulled into the first aid station way ahead of my “if everything goes perfect” 32 hour pace. I wasn’t worried because I was keeping my heart rate in the zone and eating/hydrating well. A quick water top up and I was off on the next leg.

I planned to be at the Leatham Hollow aid station by 12:30 or so and pulled in closer to 11. My stomach was starting to feel queasy, though I wasn’t concerned. At mile 20, still getting the kinks out is pretty typical. Becca put some sunblock on my shoulders; I switched to a waist pack and headed off a long jeep road to the next aid station 3mi away. The waist pack wouldn’t set right and I could hardly run without being beaten to death by the full water bottle. It was just fine as the grade was steady and it was now pretty hot. The next aid station had really planned ahead; the cold towels were a blessing. I wanted to run some of the next section so I went a little light on the water in the waist pack bottle. Dumb. My stomach got more nauseous and I ran out of water because I was moving slower and the climb was pretty steep for much of this section. I caught up with Lynn Ballard who had slowed some because of the heat as well and we suffered together for awhile.

When I got to the Cowley aid station just before 2pm, I dragged myself off to the shade and just lay down. Becca took great care of me but I couldn’t get the stomach back on track. After burning 25 min there, I slogged out looking less than the picture of health. I was still drinking well but getting any food down was pure discipline. That damned watch going off every 20 minutes to remind me to eat was getting faster and faster. It seemed like I had no sooner finished choking down a hammer gel than it was time for a Shot Blok. I finally got sick enough that I pulled out my secret nausea weapon from Julianna Crownover, Zofran. This powerful anti-nausea drug is often used for chemo patients and Julianna had some because of her serious morning sickness and it was a “Bear” present from her. When I sat down at about 8:30hours into the race, I needed it bad. But nothing happened. When an hour had gone by and I still felt lousy, I was officially worried. I had barely covered 50k and suddenly the next 70 miles was looking like a very, very long way. The stunningly beautiful setting was all around me but I wasn't in the right spot to enjoy it, sadly.

And then, as I was getting more and more wrapped around the axle, it hit me. I figured out why I was feeling so bad: caffeine. I usually take in an espresso gel with 50mg of caffeine and include shot bloks for the rest of my nutrition. I had not taken into account that my favorite flavor had recently added 100mg of caffeine/package. So I was rather consistently getting 240 calories and 150mg of caffeine an hour. I only drink green tea, so this was a lot of caffeine! I later figured out that that was more than the equivalent of a cup of coffee every hour for almost 11 hours. No wonder I thought I was going to heave, and tried my best to, for so long. Becca went into high gear finding non-caffeinated food and after a longish aid stop at mile 45 to get ready for the night, I was off again.

Though I knew I had hours till the caffeine worked its way out of my system, just having an answer made a huge difference in my mental state. I wasn’t able to run much but with so many hills, I really just kept on grinding out the miles. Nothing pretty about my style but I had made up my mind that I was going to finish the Bear. The stars coming out helped. One of the most spectacular nights ever; at least when I managed to pull my eyes up from the trail. I saw a shooting start that must have lasted 10 seconds; simply amazing. Those little things matter.

I rolled into Tony Grove at mile 51 around 9pm, starting to come down from the caffeine. Shaking like crazy and a headache coming on, Becca got me some hot soup which tasted great. She had made friends with the aid station folks because she was helping so many people and one of the guys saved her the last can of soup for me. I brushed my teeth and shivered out a little after 9:30p. The next aid station was about 10 miles and mostly downhill. But this was probably the slowest part of the course for me. I was not recovered from the caffeine overdose and I just couldn’t find a gear. I was proud that I kept moving steadily but speed was not even in the cards.

From Franklin Basin, it’s four miles up and four miles down to Logan River. I don’t remember much. Trudging, trudging, trudging is about all I can report. When I get to the aid station at mile 70 around 4am, I finally felt myself coming back to life. John Sharp from San Antonio dropped here, which is always tough to see, and Becca helped take care of him for the next 12 hours or so. They had a gigantic bonfire going, which is both great and a huge mistake as it can trick runners into getting comfortable. They also had hot towels that felt better than any Four Seasons spa and some more hot soup. It really revived me, along with the approximately 100 Tums I had chewed in the last several hours, and I was ready to roll. I crossed the river, fell in of course, and then climbed up the next pass like a new man.

I ran into the 76 mile aid station feeling pretty good at 7am. The sun had come up and I had less than a marathon to go. All night long I had been putting on and taking off my coat, gloves and hat (which I almost hadn’t even bothered to pack!) It was cold in the hollows and warm up high so it almost never stayed the same temp for long. I couldn’t wait to give all that stuff to Becca so when I left, I was just in a tshirt. Also dumb. I just about froze the next 90 minutes as we crossed, finally, from Utah into Idaho. I was in a good enough mood to enjoy that moment but it was just another step along the way, so not much celebrating. The next aid station, Gibson Basin, was runners only and I stopped long enough for water and some undercooked ramen, then actually started running across this gorgeous basin ringed by aspen. Finally the downhill was the one that led to the Beaver Creek aid station at 86 around 10:15am. I switched back to my old shoes, which felt great, had perhaps the best potato soup I have ever had in my life and got back on the trail.

I really think the last 14 miles were the toughest of the entire race. Steep ups and downs kept it interesting though hard to find a steady pace, as if such a thing could be found! A big section of this leg was out in the open above 8500 feet. So it was hot by now, dry as a bone with humidity in the single digits and a wind whipping up the baby powder-fine dust into a less than ideal breathing environment. Even though it was only 7 miles away, it seemed like that final aid station at mile 93 just kept moving further and further away.

Finally, Ranger Dip station came into view around 12:30pm. Seven miles to go, with the steepest climb of the course right out of the aid station and then a monster downhill, losing 3000 feet of elevation in six miles. Most of that loss comes in a two miles section that felt like falling off a cliff. I was amazed at the several runners who came by like they were either being chased by demons or protected by angels. Allan Wrinkle, a terrific runner who I had passed long ago came gliding down the hill like a ghost. He was impressive! I was terrified of falling and jacking up my back so close to the end. These guys saw nothing but the finish. Downhills after so many miles can really take their toll on a runners quads, so I was even more in awe.

I ran down the mountain as fast as I could and picked up speed when it changed from deadly to just steep. Only one place on the course had I gotten lost and now, with the finish line less than 3 miles away, the course markings changed and I burned 10 precious minutes chasing my tail. Finally, I just decided to plunge ahead and crossed the last creek before turning down the dirt road to the finish. Somehow I had in my mind, not exactly high functioning after 33 hours, that once I got to the dirt road I was almost done. Not exactly. It was freaking ENDLESS…no other word. Lots of nice people on ATVs telling me I was getting close but all I saw was pink tape telling me I had more to go! Then, I heard some traffic and saw a man at an intersection who looked like he was there to help runners. He shuffled with me for the 20 yards along the highway and then he pointed the way to finish, another short 30 yards away. Chad, who ran a very solid 32 hours, and Lynn had already finished and were the first to cheer, along with Julie and Becca.

33:17 was the finish time. My feet were in really good shape, though my calf muscle was pretty wrecked and I think it will be another week or so before I'm running. I was about as dirty and disgusting as I've been after a run and maybe more satisfied. I ate two veggie burgers and we rolled out for the 50 mile drive back to Logan. Becca was zonked, she had about 20 min sleep during the whole thing, and was out by 8:30p. I was a little wired and stayed up till after 10pm, making it about 41hours without sleep.

Most importantly for me, I completed a Hard Rock qualifier so I can put my name in the lottery this January…only an 18% chance for someone in my position so have to keep my hopes in check.

This is a first class race with incredible race management and volunteers. It’s so organized that the three RDs all run the race! I highly recommend the whole experience. I want to thank Becca again. She was amazing not just as my crew but in helping out so many other runners and their crews. I am so lucky to have her in my life and having her in my running world is just icing on the cake