Monday, September 14, 2009

Wasatch Race Report - The Full Version

I always hate the week or two before a big race. I imagine all kinds of problems with my health, both mental or physical health. With this race I never really had that though. I felt great all of the time leading up to this race. I was in Colorado for two weeks getting used to high elevation and then in Utah for a week getting everything in line for the race. I never felt stressed about it though and come the morning of the race I felt very calm and prepared.

I woke at 4:30 (ah, the beauty of camping at the race start and sleeping until the last possible moment) and the parking lot was full of racers getting last minute things in order. I shovelled in a banana, a berry smoothie, a couple gels, and some coffee; Checked all my gear for the 4th or 5th time, put on some sunblock, and I was ready to roll. One minute before the start I made my way to the front of the pack and made a little pre race, pre dawn small talk with Karl Meltzer. We wished each other luck and stared blankly down the dark trail ahead as the time counted down from 10 seconds. And then we were off.

I fell in behind Karl and had no plans of running in the lead before day break. I opted for a small, watch battery powered headlamp for this section of the race. Partly because it was so small and lightweight, but even more so that I wouldn't push out ahead at too fast of a pace. I pretty much couldn't run faster than 10 minute per mile pace without outrunning the beam of my light... perfect tool to help hold back for the first couple hours. And so we climbed up and up into the mountains. For most of the first two hours we were a group of 6. Joining Karl and I were Hal Koerner, Josh Brimhall, Jared Campbell, and John Anderson. I felt relaxed and strong but I could tell that most of the others did too. No one seemed to be working too hard all the way to Francis Peak aid station at mile 18. Josh lead the way into the aid station, but I was only a few seconds back and Karl and Hal could be seen up the road just a minute or two back. This is the first race I've ever done with a fully organized and committed crew. My roommate Dan had flown down from Alaska earlier in the week and I think he was almost as excited for this race as I was. He had me in and out of Francis Peak without hardly stopping and I was into the lead for what would turn out to be the rest of the race!

I was feeling strong and relaxed but I knew that I had no interest in trying to run away from the field this early on so I tried to slow down and let the chase pack reel me in. At one point 3 or 4 miles past Francis Peak I saw Josh and Karl behind me and I slowed even further, expecting that they would catch me within a few minutes and I would be able to relax and let one of them set the pace until I really wanted to begin racing at Lamb's Canyon (mile 53). For some reason though they never caught me. I was in and out of Bountiful B aid station without stopping at all and on the long straight away beyond that I couldn't see anyone behind me. I was pretty confused. I thought I was slowing down waiting for them but they just never came to me. In hindsight I realize I must have been moving a lot faster than I thought at the time, but in the moment it really just kind of confused me. Finally when I went through Swallow Rocks aid station (mile 34) I decided it was no longer worth trying to run with the chase pack. I didn't want to think about the prospect of being chased for 80+ miles but in the back of my mind I kind of knew that I had gone past the point of no return and that if I let anyone catch me that it would now be a mental defeat and that I might not be able to stay with them.

I cruised in and out of Big Mountain (mile 38) feeling strong and confident, but the day was getting hot. about 5 miles past Big Mountain my stomach really started to bother me. It had also bothered me between Francis Peak and Bountiful B but a little Coke at Bountiful B settled it back down for about 20 miles. Now though it was really unsettled and wasn't allowing me to take in any food. Even drinking water seemed like too much for awhile. I had to drink though as the temperatures around Alexander Springs aid station (mile 47) must have been pushing 90 degrees. at about mile 50 I was in serious trouble and I could sense Karl and the others breathing down my neck. I was reduced to walking, even the flat terrain, and stopping about every 10 minutes to slouch over with my hands on my knees. I repeated this pattern for almost an hour and finally made my way down to Lamb's Canyon (mile 53). At this point I thought for sure my race was over. I never thought about stopping at Lamb's but I felt like a dead man walking and that it was only a matter of when, not if I would have to stop. I hadn't eaten anything in over an hour, it was stupid hot, and my mind had gone south. The people at the aid station helped perk me back up a bit though. Mostly Dan, but also others who were there supporting other racers. One thing I really liked about this race was how supportive everyone was through the whole day. Not just my crew and the race volunteers, but also the crew of the racers chasing me down.

Dan ran with me for a couple miles up the road out of Lamb's Canyon and this really helped bring me back to reality and put things into perspective. Not only did I still have about a 10 minute lead on Karl, but I was also several minutes ahead of Kyle Skaggs course record pace. I started the climb over to Mill Creek Canyon and finally realized that it was silly to be thinking about anything other than doing what I need to do to get my stomach back on track and then go back on the attack. A little while before Mill Creek aid station my stomach finally came around and I was able to start catching back up on calorie consumption. I like to eat 100 calories every 20 minutes when I'm racing. Usually I can just stick to that rate of consumption and everything goes smooth. On this day though my stomach was pretty much on the edge of failure for about 2/3 of the race. Numerous times I needed to go 60+ minutes without eating anything and then try frantically to catch back up when my stomach felt better.

Leaving Mill Creek I knew Karl was only 10 minutes or so behind me, but I also started to get my confidence back for the first time in over 15 miles. I still had almost 40 miles to go but I could start to smell the finish. I was through Mill Creek about an hour faster than my time last year and I knew that if I could keep my stomach on track that I could potentially end up with a shockingly fast time. I tried as best I could to keep these thoughts out of my mind, but it was hard to do so because my legs, as they had most of the day, felt great. Things really began to click when I was climbing from Desolation Lake up to Scott's Pass (about mile 70). My stomach was letting me eat as much as I wanted to, the heat was finally breaking, and I was really having a lot of fun. But all the while I knew Karl was still lurking close behind. I confirmed this from the top of the Wasatch Crest when I could look back down and see him roll into Desolation aid station where I had just been about 15 minutes earlier.

The run down the paved road to Brighton was about exactly what you might expect of a downhill section of pavement 72 miles into a race: horrible. But it went by fast and then here I was at Brighton, 70 minutes faster than I was last year, and 25 minutes faster than Kyle Skaggs was in 2007 when he set the course record of 19:35.

The Wasatch 100 is basically two separate runs. A 75 mile warm up to Brighton and then a 25 mile race from Brighton to the finish. The route has so many tough climbs, rutted; dusty; sandy; rocky trail, and shockingly steep drops in the last 25 miles that it almost feels like you're not running in the some mountain range anymore. Add to this the accumulated fatigue of having already run for 75 miles and it's really an intimidating way to finish a race. Yet somehow Brighton to the finish is by far my favorite part of this course. It's beautiful in it's brutality and somehow really comforting even though it's forcing so much physical discomfort onto your body. And with these thoughts running through my mind I nervously joked with Karl's crew that she should be sure to let him know that I was just getting warmed up. In reality I was scared to death. I had been running alone for 10 hours, sensing Karl hunting me down the entire time, and if I were going to win this thing I was going to have to hold him off for 5 more hours. Leaving Brighton 25 minutes ahead of course record pace with Karl Meltzer chasing me close behind was in some ways just where I wanted to be, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't really stressful.

Dan decided to try to run with me from Brighton to the finish. I was pretty stoked about this. It allowed me to chat with him and try to forget about just how much pressure I was feeling to keep my shit together for 25 more miles. We took the climb up to Sunset Pass pretty easy and after that I was ready to really start pushing things. We were in and out of Ant Knolls (mile 79) without even stopping and then onto Pole Line Pass in what felt like just a few minutes later. It was now dark and I was now fixated on the finish. I started to realize that I could finish before midnight (sub 19 hours) and that if Karl was going to catch me he was going to have to virtually kill himself to do so. And then climbing up to the ridge between Pole Line Pass and Rock Springs I looked back down below and saw his headlamp following me up the trail. I knew that he was a good 20 minutes behind me right there but to be able to see him for the first time in several hours scared the shit out of me. And so I lowered my head and pushed even harder. By this point Dan was no longer able to keep up with me and I got into a nice meditative rhythm for several miles. Between Rock Springs and Pot Bottom though the trail is really tough. They call this a 6 miles stretch of trail but I think it's closer to 8 or 9. And in this particular case it felt more like 12. It just went on and on for what felt like hours.

I finally rolled into Pot Bottom (mile 93) at 17:20. Last year I ran from Pot Bottom to the finish in 1:10. This was the first point where it really sunk in just how fast I was going to finish this thing. I began to think about how I could walk the entire way to the finish and still shatter the course record. And how I could probably crawl to the finish and still beat my time from last year. And then I would remember Karl back there, chasing me down, only about 20 minutes behind. I never thought I could run this race anywhere near as fast as I did, but I certainly didn't think that if running that fast I would be looking over my shoulder the entire day. The fact that I hadn't run away with this race by this point is a testament to just how incredible of a day Karl had as well. It's pretty amazing that he just keeps getting faster and faster with each race he does. 10 more years and he might own every 100 mile record on the planet :)

Anyway, I decided to take the climb out of Pot Bottom really easy and then just pound the last 5 miles of downhill as hard as I could. I got to the top of the climb and I was ready to go. I was striding down the rocky trail with everything I had. My quads were in some pretty serious pain but I ignored it and simply sped up some more. When I hit the smooth single track with about 2 miles to go I was running so fast that my momentum was throwing me off the sides of curves. I didn't care. I just wanted to run fast. I had the race locked up, the course record shattered, and could have eased into the finish. But instead I sped up even more. And it felt better and better the faster I went.

When I crossed the finish I was relieved to be done, relieved that I no longer had to worry about Karl hunting me down, relieved that I could sit down and relax, but mostly relieved that my mind could stop thinking about racing. Usually in 100 mile races my mind has all kinds of time to wander off on tangents and process all kinds of things that I otherwise might not ever find the time to think about. In this race though I felt like I was on the edge of physical (mostly stomach) and mental (stress about being chased so closely for 80 miles) collapse so often that I really needed to keep my mind focused on the race at hand or else I would wander off and never come back.

When it was all said and done I had finished in 18:30:55... more than 90 minutes faster than last year and more than 60 minutes faster than the previous course record. I still haven't been able to process just what this fast of a race really means to me. I knew that if things went well I could go faster than I did last year, but never once did I think I could go anywhere near as fast as I did. I'm still trying to figure out why/how it happened and maybe I'll share that some other time if I come up with any ideas.

22 comments:

C.J. Hitz said...

Geoff,

Congratulations on a tremendous victory! Great report as well. Still undefeated in 100mi races huh? Seriously, you just added your name in the mix for Ultrarunner of the year along with Karl & Hal. Will be interesting to see how that vote shakes out. Enjoy some rest!

CJ

padre angulo said...

Spectacular race, Geoff. Huge congrats. Great report. Enjoy the recovery.

justin

Neal G said...

Geoff,

Good to meet you (briefly) at the Cheetah line up. Great race re-cap. Your fitness almost matches your humility. Freakin' amazing run! You and Karl. See you at SFNF50?

Neal

Derrick said...

Congratulations Geoff! Fantastic race. You were in a hell of a zone!

Great report. Found it interesting that you had to deviate a little from your normal nutrition plan, but that it works so well for you.

Sara said...

Just amazing! It must have been insane to be in full-on race mode that long! Congrats and enjoy your recovery.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring!!!!!! BobM

Alaskan Assassin said...

Loved the report.

You broke the HURT course record and now Wasatch in the same year. You have to be the best technical 100 mile runner in the nation right now.

I am excited for you because you are cool as hell and easy to root for.

GO ALASKA!!

olga said...

That's a very neat report, very feel-full, just awesome. Oh, yeah, I forgot, the race was like that too:) Congratulations!

AJW said...

Great report! Makes me wonder, if you hadn't had the stomach issues going into Lamb's how fast you could have run.

Think the Bear CR will be yours as well?

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable. You write a great story. Very honest, heartfelt, humble and matter-of-fact, yet so inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story with the rest of us.

Phil said...

...smokin' congratulations. also a delayed congrats on killing the course record for Crow Pass this summer too.

Justin said...

Geoff, Amazing story. Thank you for breaking down all the details. Ultrarunner of the Year is looking very good, as well as performance of the year with that one! Please report soon if you are doing Bear or North Face SF or whatever in the rest of 2009!!! "Keep the hammer down" you are on a roll!

Anonymous said...

Really inspiring race Geoff! Thanks for taking the time to share the details.

rustyboy said...

Whoa, whatta race, and really a good, introspective look into what competing in a 100 miler is like: The mental stress, the physical fatigue, and the will to push through those elements.

Congratulations!

Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

Wow. Just, wow.

Anonymous said...

Wow is right! Great job Geoff and great race report!!! I can't imagine running at that pace for over 19 hours..truly awesome.
Its a pleasure to watch you develop your potential as an athlete to such heights! Take care and good luck on your next one.

StevefromNewMexico

Scott Dunlap said...

Incredible, Geoff! Congrats. Thanks for sharing the inside scoop.

SD

Dave Mackey said...

Nice run Geoff. You help me vicariously understand what 100's are really about.

Dave Mackey said...

Nice run Geoff. You help me vicariously understand what 100's are really about.

Lisa Smith-Batchen said...

simply amazing!

Lisa

Marco Denson said...

Geoff,
great report and race. I felt the stress of the chase when I was reading your report. I'm a mid to back of the pack runner and I could never imagine how it feels to be in that position. Now I know. Question, you said you like to eat about 100 calories/hr (when running) what do you eat?

Marco

Tony Mollica said...

Wow Geoff another 100, another victory and another course record! Keep it up! It is great to follow you and read your RR's! Congratulations!