Thursday, September 15, 2011

1000 Miles of Heaven and Hell - 2011 Wasatch 100

I was 12 when my mom ran her first marathon. Afterwards I told her that was enough, she didn’t need to do that again. The thought of running 26 miles was beyond me and it must be bad for you, I thought. Many years later my older sister, Leslie, was running marathons. I ran to keep fit for soccer, but really felt happier chasing a ball around than running to run. In 1995, Leslie signed up for the Chicago Marathon. The night before, I registered too and offered that I could run the marathon at “her pace”. At mile 22, “her pace” caught up to me. My legs became wooden stumps. She trotted away, able to finish 15 minutes ahead of me. I have never been so sore.

A few years later in the middle of the night in a neonatal intensive care unit, a respiratory therapist, Fred Riemer, was talking about the Wasatch 100. It seemed unthinkable, some sort of edge of human capacity, I had to find out what this was about. In 1998 Fred Riemer offered me a chance to pace at Wasatch from Big Mountain to Big Water. While pacing I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew there was something special about this race, and needed to experience the whole thing. The following year I signed up, discovered that Fred and I were neighbors, and started the tradition of driving to the start with Fred.

Greg, me, Fred, and Christian at the pre-race meeting

Fast forward 12 years, I am sitting in Fred’s car at 4 AM with some silly puffy shoes (Hokas), women’s socks (the ones I ordered hadn’t arrived), and a Gregory Diablo pack loaded with water, dried mangoes, a variety of bars and gels and driving to Kaysville, Utah surrounded by guys with whom I have run thousands of miles. Christian, Greg, Erik and I watched a huge orange moon rise over the Oquirrhs while Fred made the familiar drive to the start.

Arriving at the start was a complex mix of anticipation, fear, relief, and joy for me. If all went well, this would be ten finishes in ten starts with a chance to go for 6 consectuive years of faster times. Walking up the short hill to the gathering crowd is a reunion of sorts, people on a pilgrimage to the Homestead in Midway, Utah. John and Kate from Gregory Packs came to the start to wish us well. Before long we were off on a dusty trail. The pace seemed fast from the start. I tried to get in a pack with Christian, Erik, Greg and Jason, but there were too many others so I gave up. During the first 3 miles of rolling terrain, I started to notice a pain on the outside of my right knee when I transitioned to a downhill run. There is a saying that the pain you start with isn’t the pain you will finish with. I figured that somehow this would work itself out. It isn’t like you get to run 100 miles without discomfort. Climbing was no problem, and the next 10 miles of ascent felt fine. I spent some time with Greg and David Hayes as well as Jesse Crowne and Erich Peitzsch. The downhill from Grobben’s Corner to Francis Peak went by quickly. I arrived at Francis Peak a little ahead of my schedule, and was efficiently moved through the aid station by Rick Robinson (Scott Jaime’s father-in-law) who made me feel like one of the elites.

As I left the aid station eating my “breakfast”, the lateral aspect of my right knee began to hurt. I figured if I kept walking it would loosen up and it did. Greg caught up to me and we ran along together. When I stopped for a quick break to even the score in Greg and my micturition contest, my knee went into full protest. I hopped, hobbled, and swore up and down until things loosened up. Eventually I regrouped with Greg. I wondered if I was looking at another 80 miles of hobbling. The last months of training I felt were going to be for naught. My streak of improvement was giving way to iliotibial band syndrome (ITS). I wasn’t even sure if I could finish. On the flatter sections and climbs however, things were ok, so I continued on, remembering to eat and drink.

Bountiful B aid station came and went quickly. A hug and encouraging words from John Moellmer lifted my spirits immensely, but again the transition to a run was met with resistance and pain. Greg and David Hayes quickly caught me and we ran together for a short time, but I couldn’t keep pace. Any downhill was difficult, and the drop just before Sessions was particularly disheartening as I usually can let gravity take me to the bottom. Now I was fighting every step. At Sessions, I was met by fellow MRC runners Kevin Shilling and Rich McDonald who were running the aid station. Kevin asked what I needed. “A new knee” was my reply. Kevin winced, no stranger to orthopedic pain this last year with a healing tibial fracture. In 2 minutes I was off again to hobble, limp, and yell as I tried to make my way downhill. I must have been a sight. The only good news was that I still could climb. My typical strategy had completely reversed.

Most of the next 5 miles I spent alone. My pace was fairly steady, but I was approaching some downhill sections. Jesse Crowne and Jason Berry caught and passed me before Swallow Rocks aid station. We all left the aid station together, but they quickly glided away. Phil Lowry caught me, and offered that 2 years ago he had finished with an ITS issue, and to just keep moving. On the downhill coming into Big Mountain, I stumbled and fell. I could hear the bells and cheers from down below, but I was in little mood for encouragement as my day was slipping away.

As I checked into the Big Mountain aid station, my weight was good, up 3 lb. I was hydrated and fed. Jessica took my pack and started to assess my needs. She was worried, as the runners ahead of me had alerted her to my trouble. Scott Dickey, who was pacing me for the next section took over. As Scott put it he has had every running injury in the book. I reluctantly took some ibuprofen with the knowledge that I was well hydrated, and that the risk of acute interstitial nephritis was low. Scott went straight into the lower aspect of my vastus lateralis muscle with his thumbs and quickly found a very tight spot. As he massaged my leg, he described the band for Jessica to pick up at the Salt Lake Running Company. Before I knew it, I was headed out, still stiff but better. I now had a diagnosis, treatment plan, and company who knew what to do. The next 8 miles to Alexander Ridge would be a test. This section includes some long descents with names like Ball Bearing Hill, and exposed ridge tops that heat up in the afternoon. The first descent that Scott and I hit, I felt like new. I could run. I tried to contain my excitement, but I literally had goose bumps on my arms. This was not a time to push hard, but we moved quicker than I had all day, and we started to pull runners in.

Just before the turn down to Alexander Basin, I caught up to Erik and Christian. Erik was having a bit of a rough patch, and slowed to work on his hydration and nutrition. Christian and I descended together. He looked great and was exorcising demons from previous years in this section. We ran through the oven with Scott occasionally dousing us with sprays of water to keep us cool. I was very conscious of my water consumption, and was thinking of the value of knowing my approximate sweat rate of about 1.6 L/hr in this type of heat (thanks to Max Testa for pushing me to figure that out). Scott and I quickly transitioned out of Alexander Basin aid station, and caught up to Greg on the rolling grassy climbs on the sheep trail road. On our way down to Lambs, Scott mused that this must be my favorite section of the course as the road noise from I-80 drowned out the sounds of pretty much everything else. We kept a nice clip down to the aid station and eventually emerged to the crowd that was awaiting us. For the first time all day I was smiling. We were now about 6 minutes ahead of last year’s pace, having started the section 5 minutes behind. I was now able to run. My family was there, I had baba ganooj to eat, and Brian Harward (a physical therapist who specializes in running injuries) was waiting to take over pacing duties. Jessica had gone to the Salt Lake Running Company and purchased a jumper’s knee strap that Scott adjusted just above my knee. I was taken care of, blessed.

Brian and I made our way quickly up the road to the climb to Bare Ass Pass. I took my BD Z-poles out for the first time all day. Wow. At the top I had a little trouble transitioning to a run, but we managed to get going downhill without much drama. On the climb up to the Big Water trailhead Brian entertained me with Dave Hunt stories, and demonstrated how Dave chased down cars and bikes along the road. While I felt good, I didn’t have a 10th of the energy needed to break into a Dave Hunt high step run up the Millcreek road. Before I knew it we were at the Millcreek aid station, having been carried along by thoughts of Uncle Dave.

Jessica, Astrid, and Mats were waiting and again efficiently swapped my Gregory Diablo pack, gave me a headlamp, and sent me on to Brighton. John Pieper (from Gregory Packs) was there which was fitting, as he had outfitted me with the packs. He cheered us on and made sure to gather any needed information to pass on to John McGuire (also from Gregory Packs) who would pick up the pacing duties at Brighton. Brian and I made a deliberately slow climb to Dog Lake. We were passed by a few runners including Becky Wheeler, the eventual woman’s winner. Just before the descent to Blunder Fork, I paused for a Don Pedro. Now lighter, we ran the descent to Blunder Fork. The BD poles came out again on the climb to Red Lovers Ridge, where we saw an amazing set of pink and orange clouds from the setting sun. I struggled a little on the crest, meandering in my slow shuffle. Brian got me to force down a caffeinated gel. That and a Coke from the Scott’s Pass aid station did the trick. We were running again.

We arrived at Brighton a minute before last year’s time. John McGuire was waiting and ready to run 7 miles more than he ever had before. We efficiently moved in and out of the Brighton Lodge, careful not to get comfortable. We left a minute ahead of last year. Beating last year’s effort was what the last 25 miles was all about. It was a beautiful night, I felt surprisingly good, and I was in great company. Catherine’s Pass came quickly and we descended to Ant Knolls as well as I can remember. No matter how quickly I descended, McGuire was right with me. At Ant Knolls we were 5 minutes ahead. By Pole Line pass we were 11 minutes ahead. By Rock Springs we were 16 minutes ahead. By Pot Bottom we were 18 minutes ahead. As we left Pot Bottom I knew that barring a disaster we would break last year’s record time. About 2 miles from the finish I caught my foot on a root and fell into the brush, my right quadricep landed on a mercifully smooth root. I surveyed my leg and was helped up by John. Amazingly it hurt less than my legs as a whole, so we motored on now carefully running the rest of the single track.

Crossing the finish line with McGuire

The Homestead lights were a welcome sight. John and I had run the last 25 miles in under 6 hours. Jessica, Astrid, and Mats were waiting. I received a huge hug from John Grobben, and then to my complete surprise hugs from my mom and step-dad who had come in under the radar from Chicago. This was really special for me, as my mom used to get me out of bed in the dark to join her for morning runs. Both my parents mentored this activity. Standing at the finish line under the stars, I was flooded with memories and emotions of how I got to this moment and grateful for all the people in my life who have supported the process.

Resting with the crew at the finish

With a finish time of 22 hours 47 minutes, I completed my 10th Wasatch and goal of another faster time for the 6th year in a row.

2005 - 29:28, 54th

2006 - 27:40, 29th

2007 - 26:09, 14th

2008 - 25:15, 13th

2009 - 23:36, 15th

2010 - 23:05, 9th

2011 - 22:47, 9th

This is a tough streak to continue, but why not go for it again in 2012?

With my Crimson Cheetah buckle and 10 year ring

While it may seem cliche to run through a series of “thank-yous”, I can’t help it. The Wasatch 100 race committee is a family, and they put on an event that is for me and I am sure others to put it simply, meaningful. There is little external hype. What is grand about Wasatch is the challenge of the course and the collective efforts to complete that challenge. Perhaps as grand is the support that the runners, pacers, crew, and volunteers give to each other in the spirit of bringing out the best in each other. The work that the committee and all the volunteers do is nothing short of exemplary.

This year solidified my belief that “pacers” can make the race. Scott Dickey worked some magic on me at Big Mountain. I really think I would have finished 10 -12 hours slower without him. Brian Harward took me through what I think are the hardest hours of the race, and delivered me at Brighton in a state to have a run at my record. John McGuire, having never paced, or even run 25 miles, took over at Brighton. We ran from Brighton to the finish in the dark in 5 hours and 55 minutes. John didn’t break a sweat or breathe hard, and I absolutely couldn’t shake him on the downhill. Look out for this guy.

Over the course of the last year, I have been constantly indebted to Christian, Greg, Erik, and Jay, who are immensely imaginative in planning weekly adventures, introducing new trails, and presenting challenges.

And I couldn’t do any of this without the support of my wife, daughter, and son. We do this race as a team. So while my name might be on the plaque, I recognize this as a collective effort that motivates us in many aspects of our lives. A day after the race my 9 year-old son laced up his soccer cleats and declared that he was going to beat his soccer juggling record of 97. Thirty minutes later, sweating and smiling he walked in--146.


Jay said...

Peter - This is much more than a race report. You capture much of what makes Wasatch special for so many people. And, you capture what makes running so special for many of us - the friends, camaraderie, and adventure. Congrats on number 10! Looking forward to another 10 in your company - with, of course, increasingly faster times!

Christian said...

Congratulations on a fantastic run and #10! Very impressive. As Jay said you captured the essence of what makes this race so special.

I'm just curious though, have you done the math on how many more years it will take before you go under 20 hours?

Alan said...

Peter: Great report, and a fine tribute both to you and to the race! I wish I were still part of it all. The photo of you and the family under the covers at the finish brings back special memories for me that I will never forget. As for Christian's question, I figure sub 22 next year, then sub 21, with sub 20 in 2014 (at the latest).

peter said...

I think that I will go for broke next year and see what happens. ; )

JohnnyMac said...

You leave a lot to measure up to! Congrats again.

Nick S. said...

The way you keep improving your time is really impressive.
My first Wasatch was such a miserable death march that it has taken me 5 years to start thinking about giving it another go.
With that being said...looking back, what advise would your sub 24hour self give your 30+ hour self?

peter said...

My 30+ hour self really had no idea about training. I was starting to train in late June and July, and would get in 3 or 4 weeks with long runs of 20- 30 miles. My long runs aren't any longer, but I am putting in more consistent weekday runs, and adding back to back weekend runs. I am no longer afraid of training.

One of the surprising things about the Wasatch times per section is that the front runners aren't really all that fast, but they have the base miles to keep running/jogging/shuffling. So when others are on the death march, the front folks are doing the Wasatch shuffle. The difference b/t 11-13 min/mile and 20-25 min/mile adds up fast.

Take a look at aid station times as well. I doubt I had more than 5 minutes at any one stop. This is one of the easiest places to drop time.

Knowing what it feels like to hurt and still be able to push on, has been an advantage. I used to be afraid of completely falling apart. Now I know that I will fall apart a few times and be able to piece things back together on the run. Experience has helped.

Keep in mind that the race and the time are icing on the cake. The real treat is the training. Watching the seasons change, spotting wildlife, running under the stars, seeing the sun come up, watching the wild flowers bloom, and doing it with good friends makes the finish time (somewhat) irrelevant.

Happy Trails!

Nick S. said...

Wow....I will take that advice to all my future races,
Thank you for taking the time to write it up...I do this stuff as a excuse to get to the mountains, my times have always come second to the journey itself.