I signed up for the Ghosts of Yellowstone 100 on a bit of a whim. After an untimely fever forced a scratch at the August 2nd Elkhorn 50, my plan of running the IMTUF on September 20th lost its appeal. I wanted to race, and as soon as possible. The Ghosts of Yellowstone was just a couple weeks away and as Montana’s only 100-miler, I figured I had to give it a shot…plus Mystery Ranch was putting up $1,000 in prize money to sweeten the deal. Seth had a fun time running it last year, my fitness was starting to come into good form and I was feeling confident I could once again get ‘round one of these things.
In the days leading up to the race, my biggest concern was the weather forecast. It certainly was not going to be hot, with highs of about 60 degrees predicted for Pony, the start-finish village. There would be rain at some point, either showers or steady, but precip was a given. Planning drop bags was a challenge as I had to forecast my time and location and plot against the predicted weather. In retrospect, however, this challenge proved useful because it forced me to look closely at the course description and maps and focus keenly on where I would be and when. That would help later…
With classes set to begin the following Monday, it was a bit of a scramble to leave town. I had meetings all day Wednesday and Thursday, but was able to sneak out a bit early in order to make it the pre-race meeting in time to turn over those drop bags to the aid station folks. A quick drop, some basic course information and I was off to Pony to get some sleep. Pony is a classic Montana cowboy town. Not much to it. I found a level place to park the truck and gobbled some dinner as rather dramatic thunderstorm moved in. With no place dry to go other than my truck, I retreated to the cap at about 7:30 and hunkered down with my book. It pelted rain throughout the night, a precursor to race day weather, but I slept quite well, waking sharply a 4:00 ready to down some breakfast, brew some coffee and get on with it.
It was barely not raining at the start and that buoyed my spirits considerably – starting wet is just plain unpleasant. A small tribe of 20 or so toed the line and set off in the pre-dawn light. Just as soon as I started to revel in a relaxed starting pace, one young fellow darted off like he was running a 10k. Slightly annoyed, I gave chase and resolved to keep him at least within eyesight on the day’s first climb. After only a mile or so, he was already a minute ahead – fast or stupid or maybe both. The first several miles grind up an abandoned fire road, gaining a high ridge 2,500 feet above Pony. I slowly reeled the rabbit in and pulled alongside, introducing myself. Chris’s (now that I new his name) response, “Justin Angle…yeah I know you…I used to read your blog when I was in high school!” That cut. Cut me deep. “Dude, I turn 40 on Monday and I’m not exactly looking for more things that make me feel old.” We chatted a bit more, contemplating the day before us, and then I slowly eased ahead, finding a nice rhythm over the ridge and down into the abandoned mining town of Murdoch. I bypassed the aid station here (mile 8) and strode on to the Curly Lake trailhead at mile 12.7, climbing a 1000 or so feet up a progressively degrading doubletrack.
The smell of fresh weed greeted me at the aid station. 7:55 AM…a little early to be burning so hot, fellas. Nonetheless, the two guys manning the aid helped me locate my drop bag, reload some water and head out onto what would (much later) become the crux move of the course. The stretch from Curly to McGovern covers almost 17 miles, climbing up 4,000 feet to a high pass at just below 10,000 feet. This trail was absolutely the highlight of the course…mountainous, technical and exposed, offering sweeping views during the rare moments the low – and lowering - ceiling allowed. The climb gained steepness toward a high junction at 9,000 feet. I had not seen a course marker in quite some time, but I knew I was at the southern end of the course and needed to head north, making the decision to turn right at the unmarked intersection relatively easy. From here the trail climbed steeply to a pass taking me across two open alpine meadows, meadows in which the trail disappeared. What was easy navigation on this outbound leg was sure to be tricky on the return so at several spots I made the point to turn around and take a good look at what I would be facing 50 or so miles hence.
The descent off the pass was sweet…rocky and steep at the top giving way to bomber singletrack all the way down to the McGovern aid station. McGovern, by the way, was the first of 5 out-and-backs embedded within this larger 90-mile out-and-back. I didn’t feel stellar heading down, a little stiff and awkward, but the mind was good and the guts intact. The aid station crew seemed surprised to see me, which is always a boost, and I reloaded my gels and Omnibars in short order.
Then I entered the washing machine portion of my day – rinse and repeat. I mentioned the 5 out –and–backs, well, they were pretty uneventful. Each descent/ascent was 2,000 or so feet of similar profile – sub-alpine at the ridge to high pine forest, to open range land, to rugged two-track falling steeply to the valley floor. I stayed steady – never felling too good, never feeling too bad – and was able to check in with other runners, get a sense of my lead (it was thankfully significant), and manage negative slits on my second laps of Rock Creek and McGovern Creek. Throughout, the aid station crews were quite pleasant, though I could tell they were growing anxious about the evening ahead. You see, ominous weather was on the move. Never climbing out of the 40’s, the day brought intermittent showers, none of which quite motivated me to don my Houndini jacket. But as afternoon crept on, the clouds grew deeper and darker and the air acquired a distinctly damp chill.
As I topped the final climb of McGovern, I saw Chris just about to descend, looking fresh and in good spirits, but likely 2+ hours in arrears at this point. To this point, though I had yet to really feel good, I knew I was moving relatively well. At mile 61 the aid volunteers told me I was 10 minutes ahead of Seth’s and Zack’s split from last year. Who knows how accurate that was, but it brought confidence and reassurance that I was making good progress. Parting ways with Chris I turned and resumed the climb – that same climb I previously referred to as the crux move of the day – knowing I was now the only person on the south half of the course.
By now the rain was steady and darkness creeping. I pulled out the Houdini and my gloves and rigged my headlamp for the evening. Each step of ascension brought thicker fog and more intense precipitation. Gaining the technical switchbacks of the final ridgeline, I first flicked on my headlamp, only to see the fog completely swallow the beam. It was dark, but just enough twilight remained to make my way, motivating me to reach the two aforementioned meadow sections before losing those last glimmers of illumination. At the first meadow, the trail tapered away just as I remembered. I pressed on, now fully engulfed in dark, headlamp consuming fog, feeling around for the fairly run-out cairns guiding the route. Not feeling quite confident, my vector began to descend a saddle – this wasn’t right; I had one more steep pitch to climb. I backtracked, then sidetracked, then other-sidetracked, finally returning to the spot at which I accessed this wall-less maze. Realizing my initial mistake, I worked left and soon found the desired steep pitch, picking up the goat trail and feeling, at least temporarily, secure. That security, however, came only from knowing I was on route. My 15 or so minutes of wandering left me alarmingly cold and with rain giving way to sleet and snow, any margin for addition error was gone. One more meadow to go and then hopefully descending a few thousand feet would bring some degrees and an escape from the fog.
I crossed that second meadow rather uneventfully, recalling a slight angle to the right and a distinctive cairn. Now on the descent, I needed to run and run hard to bring back some body heat. Behind on calories and shivering, I pushed as best as I could, though the fog made running almost impossible. I desperately needed my headlamp, but even its super powerful Roch Horton-modified beam could not pierce that fog. I stripped it off my head and held it low to the ground, working my way off the ridge like an old man working the beach with a metal detector. Finally back beneath treeline, the fog relented and the sleet turned to rain. With some tree cover over me and an Omnibar in the belly I regained a small bit of warmth, but at this point what was left of a race was quickly becoming a survival mission – I had a big lead, there was $1,000 to be won, and any chance of running close to Seth’s time was now out of the question. Just get through this thing in one piece became the mantra, and I clung to 2 notions to keep me moving. The first was the makeshift aid at Curly Lake. Two fellows I had seen on the outbound were making camp at the lake and informed me that their eventual ambition was to achieve aid station status. Perhaps they had made some progress during the 10 or so hours between my visits. Approaching the lake basin, their impressive camp fire caught my eye and I hopefully inquired as to the possibility of a hot beverage.
“Hold on, we can heat some up for you”
“Sorry guys, I gotta keep moving.”
Not their fault…but kind of a kick in the balls at that particular moment.
My second point of hope was the potential arrival of Beau Fredlund, fellow Omnibar athlete, overall mountain adventure stud and good friend. Beau is a prolific ski mountaineer and guide and has traded the sticks for kicks this summer in preparation for The Rut. A few days before the race, I pitched the idea of 25 or so miles of pacing work and he jumped on it. Not quite knowing if he would actually materialize – this is remote terrain with challenging logistics – I descended the Curly drainage with moderated optimism – Beau would be a boost, but I was mentally prepared to go it alone.
Sure enough, Beau appeared about 2 miles out from Curly and his energy immediately lifted my spirits. I brought him up to speed as he brought me up to speed, enthusiastically snapping photos as we approached the aid station and a resupply.
We made quick work of the aid and kept moving. Temps continued to dip and the rain/sleet was intensifying. If I hadn’t realized it earlier, I now firmly knew that this night was going to be about one thing and one thing only…stay movin’ – stay warm. Beau kept the mood light as we trudged our way up the steep pitch from Murdoch. We gained the ridge and shuffled down toward Pony and with every step I started to wonder just little a bit if Alex (RD) might shut this thing down and not allow us to hit the 10-mile finishing loop?” Oh, yes, I neglected to mention that…after the 90-mile out and back from of Pony, the course took us away from town around a 10-mile alpine loop.
Now stumbling a bit on my clubby, icy feet, we got a visual on the aid station and some potential warmth. The crew seemed pretty exuberant as we rolled in. “Why the hell you boys out here running?” I just responded with “Beau, can you see if they have any soup?” He poked into the tent only to find a smoke-filled and whiskey-drenched scene. Nope, this was not the aid station. We had fumbled into a bachelor party and the partiers were just as confused by us as we were with them. As we scurried away, I asked Beau, “why the f@ck would anyone have a bachelor party out here in this ridiculous weather?” He paused, allowing me to grasp the elementary and painful irony of that question on my own.
That small detour made for a few good miles of stories, propelling us to the aid station proper. Mile 90. 12 to go, with a 3,000 or so foot climb.
By now I was about as cold as I could tolerate. Unable to really get words organized and out of my mouth, I forced some soup and warm water and off we went. They said 4 up and 6 down, then 2 into town…we’ll see. Just keep moving…stay movin’-stay warm.
And so for the next 3+ hrs, we made our way around that God-awful loop, mocking our hypothermic selves and doing our best to stay on the route. Type 1 fun had ceased long ago, leaving us in the Type 2 category, with occasional dips into Type 3. But we kept moving, Beau maintaining the positive mood with stories of imaginary beaches and questions about the feasibility of insect agriculture. Monosyllables and grunts were about all I could add to the conversation. There was one lonely aid station on this section…not so much an aid station as an outpost with two burly folks tasked simply with validating our completion of the loop. Somehow they had a fire, burning brightly in the deluge. I sat in front of that thing for about 15 minutes, soaking up as much warmth as I could through my sopping layers – two Cap 1 long sleeves, 1 Houdini and 1 Alpine Houdini. That fire melted my Houdini pants, fusing them with my skin, but it was so very worth it.
Now in the final stages of this bastard, I refused to acknowledge the last aid station, just above town at the insultingly ironic 100-mile marker. 2 and change to town. Just on the outskirts I coughed slightly, initiating an impressive vomit session. I turned to Beau between bouts, sensing his concern, and muttered, “Well, this is what you came for!”
And then we were done…
Alex and a few others were waiting at the finish, quite enthusiastic that I made it round in one piece. I lingered for a few moments, then shuffled up to the Pony school, grabbed my duffle and headed straight for the bathroom. No shower, but a hot water sink-splash session felt pretty darn nice. Within about 20 minutes I was soundly asleep in the truck. Warm at last.
I’ve been somewhat nonplussed by this experience. Sure, I made it through a 100 after some recent struggles. It was a tough one – 28k of climbing through rugged, remote terrain and challenging weather. I managed a win and some cash. All good things. I’m certainly uncertain about the fun involved – in the late stages it was negligible, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. Until a day or two after the race, I was under the impression I was the only finisher, adding to my ambivalence. Four other hearty folks made it round, however, facing those elements for a minimum 9 hours longer than I did. Can’t even begin to imagine that.
I’m grateful I have the choice and the ability and resources to take on such challenges – family, friends, sponsors, and good fortune make this possible. Already musing on the next one…
Can’t thank Beau enough for his colossal effort…you are the man and that’s a fact. Alex and crew put on a solid event in the most challenging conditions and seemed to keep everyone in good spirits. Maggie and the girls put up with a lot this summer to give me this chance and my gratitude for their support, patience, generosity and love fueled every step. Love you guys!
Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Patagonia Cap1 short sleeve, Patagonia Cap1 long sleeve (2x), Patagonia Houdini, Patagonia Alpine Houdini, Patagonia arm-warmers…made into leg warmers.
UltrAspire Zygos prototype
Roch Horton specially modified Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
Loads of Omnibars, gels, some soup and the occasional Coke.
When I learned that Chris and Sue had moved to Vermont, I knew it wouldn’t be long before they conned they locals into their own special brand of running entertainment. Yep, last year they hatched the Coyote Scramble and this year I figured it would be a great event around which to center our annual family trip East.
Chris and Sue now live in Danville, VT and have built a great relationship with the good people of the Kingdom Trails Association. The Northeast Kingdom is an area I never explored growing up and is unbelievably distinct from the Northern New Hampshire White Mountains, just a few miles East. The Kingdom is lush, green and idyllic Vermont. The Kingdom Trails system is an amazing network of meticulously maintained and marked mountain bike trails. Buaaaahhhhht, mountain biking trails aren’t exactly running/hiking trails…more on that later.
The festivities began in proper Coyote fashion with a pre-race bowling tournament coupled with give-aways of highly variable value. Maggie and I both bowled exceptionally well, though “well” in this context is defined precisely as mediocre – not so poor or spectacular as to attract attention and earn “reward.” Coyote rewards tend to result in excess baggage fees. The event had a choose-your-own-adventure feel, as runners chose between 40, 30 and 20-mile options, with 12, 10, and 8 hr respective time allowances. I chose the 40 and Maggie jumped into the 20.
With the race briefing at 5:30, it was a slightly earlier morning than we wanted it to be. Chris handed out maps and directions and declared, “I don’t really care if you use these, I just want you to be back here in no more than 12 hrs…OK, now go!” With no course markings, we followed a meticulous cue sheet…one with 2 full pages of single-spaced instructions for a 42 mile run.
Note that the above is just PAGE 1
So off we went, a mix of all shapes, sizes and personalities united in our objective of fun-having, the required mind-set for any and all Coyote events. Run as hard or as far as you want, but never take yourself too seriously.
Rather than spell out the blow-by-blow, I’ll offer just a few of the many highlights, lessons, and observations:
It was a great event and we had a fantastic time. Great thanks to Chris and Sue and all their helpers for another first class production. We’ll be back for sure…and will bring friends. For those of you who have not yet experienced a Coyote event, all of the above might sound anywhere from confusing to just plain weird. It is both, and you just need to check one out to get the gist. Just show up with the right attitude and you’ll fit right in. Coyote events occupy a special, unique and important place in ultrarunning.
Great thanks to my sponsors who continue to support me and my efforts with incredible generosity and the world’s best tools for adventure.
Gear: Patagonia Air Flow Sleeveless, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Patagonia Ultralight Merino Anklet socks, Patagonia Duckbill hat (old school…circa 2001), Patagonia EVERLong shoes, UltrAspire ISOMeric Pocket hand-held water bottle.
Grub: Omnibars (Cranberry-Rosemary and Mango Chutney were to chosen flavors of the day and they performed superbly.)
During my University of Montana recruiting trip, my interview loop curiously included a professor from the Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism. I wondered why an already jammed schedule would include someone from a completely separate school and field. I wondered, that is, until I met Brent Ruby. Brent exuded everything we have grown to love about Montana and the Missoula community and Maggie and I walked away from this meeting with a much deeper sense of what a great fit this place could be for our family. Brent’s presence in the interview schedule turned out to be one of the key influencers in our decision to move here.
It turns out Brent and I would cross paths again shortly after my arrival in Missoula. I knew he was working on some cutting-edge sports and endurance nutrition products. Brent’s big focus was keeping food real and keeping it simple. Coincidentally I met his business partner, Cooper Burchenal, at Momentum Athletic Training. After suffering though hours of circuits together, Cooper and I briefly chatted about our respective careers and families and figured out we had a lot more to talk about.
I learned that Omnibar was a collaborative project between the Burchenal family and the Ruby family. Together, they hatched the idea of fusing Brent’s nutrition science with the Burchenal’s cattle-ranching resources to create a completely new kind of endurance nutrition bar. One bite into an Omnibar and you immediately know you are on to something entirely different. It’s a food bar made of 35% Montana-rasied beef and a small number of other real ingredients – almonds, flax seeds, raisins, oats and some spices. That’s it. 5 or 6 ingredients, all of which you can pronounce.
The concept has huge intuitive and scientific appeal. Real food. Real food for athletes. Pure, clean fuel. And it works. Each Omnibar delivers 200 calories, including 20g of slow burning carbs, 10g of lean protein and 10g of fat. A great balance for the long haul. This isn’t the sort of food you’d consume during a ½ marathon, but it works great during a long, steady effort. I’ve used them with great success in long distance workouts and races. It’s also a fantastic fuel for hikes, ski-tours, bike rides or any other endurance activity. Omnibars are also an optimal recovery food for any type of workout.
And the story goes deeper. As I learned more about Omnibar, Cooper approached me about his need for some marketing and promotions help. He was looking to start with a student intern and I immediately recommended Anthony Krolczyck, then a senior enrolled in my Marketing Management class. Anthony proved to be a great fit and took to the role like a fish to water, signing on as Omnibar’s Employee #1.
Soon anyone with any connection to the athletic scene in western Montana couldn’t help but learn a lot about Omnibar. Anthony dove into the community, supporting a wide variety of events, from SUP races, to the weekly cyclocross series, to the Marshall Mountain trail runs. The crown jewel of these event promotions was the inaugural Rut 12k and 50k, for which Omnibar was the title sponsor. It’s been fun to watch a former student thriving in a local company committed to both great product and its customer community.
As this web of relationships grew, Omnibar invited me into the family as a brand ambassador and unofficial marketing advisor. Last week we made this partnership official and I am honored to announce what I hope is a productive relationship for years to come. I am proud to join Mike Foote, Beau Fredlund and a small cast of other exceptional and inspiring outdoor athletes in support of this great brand and concept. #eatitall
The snow keeps coming…and we keep lapping at Marshall. @jeremywolfRun @sdswany @mt_outlaw
Some early morning Marshall laps with @jeremywolfRun.
Ainslie’s first ski lesson…super fun!
There is only so much you can do to prepare for an FKP. Over the last two weekends, we had studied the route meticulously, taking our time to note as many details of the trail as possible. I could find no mention, even hypothetical, of our objective in all the usual forums . The weather window was holding and schedules seemed to line up. On Wednesday, I got the text from Dan, “You in for Friday?” Absolutely! I had been crushing it at work trying desperately to free up enough time to sneak in this late season effort.
To say the Upper Rumble Lake FKP had been on our minds for a long time would - in truth - be an overstatement. Dan pitched the idea late in the day after a long bushwhack and tough scramble that had dumped us at the lake. He and his brother John fished for Upper Rumble Lake for hours, developing a good feel for the water, its inhabitants and shoreline accessibility. On the descent he declared, “I’m gonna paddle that thing!” Game on.
An FKP would require the right technology - a board sturdy enough to handle a high alpine lake, but packable enough to be transported the 3 miles and 3,400 vertical feet to shore. Dan had recently obtained an inflatable SUP from HALA ATCHA and thought it was up for the challenge. Upon initial inspection, I was skeptical, but anyone who knows Dan, knows Dan. I dared not doubt.
We specially modified an UltrAspire Omega to fully integrate with the (rather primitive) HALA ATCHA haul bag - note the absence of a hip belt. This configuration is roughly the equivalent of bolting carbon fiber bottle cages to a Huffy. Clunky, but a rig to facilitate optimal hydration, if nothing else.
After about a half a mile of flat strolling, the primitive climbers’ trail tilts up, and stays steep for about the next 2 miles. It is treed, dusty and loose, but Dan trudged up it with remarkable aplomb, nary slipping an inch on the bountiful golf-ball sized pebbles.
I stayed a safe distance behind, on call to un-foul the paddle shaft from low-hanging branches and offer intermittent support fueled by sarcasm and ridicule. Soon, the trail relented for a minute or two and then dropped steeply for a few hundred feet, emptying into a broad avalanche chute. Prime grizzly space. As I scanned the meadow for furry friends, I felt secure in recalling the parable of the two hikers, the grizzly, and the running shoes. With Dan hauling 40+ lbs to my mere 5, I figured outrunning him would take little effort. That said, I figured Dan could use the paddle to make quick work of any predator foolish enough to challenge him.
You can see the ultimate objective in the picture above. The rock shelf visible below the Holland Peak summit ridge forms a natural dam, holding the vast turquoise water of Upper Rumble Lake and all of her fishes. Between us and the rim of that dam lies about 1000’ of scree and boulders and one or two Class 4 moves. Child’s play at this stage of an FKP attempt.
Dan adroitly navigated the scree and made quick work of the scrambling, gapping me in the process as I stumbled up the ridge in awe. Once in the lake basin, I think Dan finally allowed himself to grasp the magnitude of his impending accomplishment, dumping the haul bag and taking a moment to enjoy a sandwich. Before too long, however, he was pumping up the SUP (UPSUP?) and then setting out into the pristine and previously unpaddled waters of Upper Rumble Lake.
As I watched from the shore, I managed to scare away several fish and loose 2 of Dan’s flies. A full service adventure partner am I. Dan managed to land two fish, however, adding to the already impressive paddling record.
Although I did no work other than walk, witness and document, Dan was gracious enough to allow me a paddle, pushing us well past our agreed upon turn-around time in the process. That was a risk worth taking…
Once I had my fill, we quickly struck the board, stowed the rods and began the arduous decent. I kept offering to share the load, but Dan would have none of it. Bagging this FKP was all him and he sliced through the scree with super-smooth style.
All joking aside, this was a super fun outing and an incredibly impressive effort from Dan. It’s also just the sort of adventure that mends the mind and spirit, particularly during forced time off from focused training. That training for ultramarathons takes us deep into the mountains and allows us to cover long distances light and fast is hugely inspiring, but there is a fine line between training and enjoying. In recent years with life becoming more and more complex, my time in the mountains has been more limited and that little time has been spent with less presence of mind. I’ve struggled to stay in the moment, distracted by turn-around times, when I need to get home and what I’ll be walking into. That distraction undermines one of mountain adventure’s fundamental benefits - escape. Projects like this silly little FKP bring balance back to the equation and are going a long way to reset my mental approach to time in the mountains. The proverbial roses smell great and must not be ignored!
No running…no problem. This forced hiatus has opened up the mind to more thoughtful journeys into the mountains. Without worrying about training goals, pace, distance, vertical, etc., I’ve been able to soak up the terrain, connect with great friends and gain a new appreciation for the incredible natural beauty immediately accessible from Missoula. Here are some of the recent highlights:
Point Saint Charles Sramble-Bushwhack: This began as a reasonable shuffle out to Turquoise Lake with Dan with the goal of fishing. Well, the lake looked pretty sterile, so we decided to scramble upward until we could no longer. That lead us to the top of a really cool peak - Point Saint Charles. From the summit we had amazing views deep into the Missions, including Glacier Peaks, McDonald Peak, and many others.
Once on top of PSC, we saw some lakes we had passed early on in our climb and immediately thought,”yeah, let’s make a loop of it,” Well, it was some rough terrain and a monster bushwack through prime grizzly terrain, but it lasted just long enough to make it quite enjoyable.
Holland Peak: This outing occurred in two installments. First was a “failed” attempt at the summit with Dan, John, Chris and Tyson. An early navigation error led us up the wrong ridge and into a long bushwhack. I put failed in quotations, however, because our error led us to course-correct into a fantastic off-trail ascent, climbing a steep river chute to two hidden alpine lakes before eventually regaining the proper route. Rather than summit, we fished…and the fish were biting big time. Another great day up high.
Hanging out at Upper Rumble Lake (the one at which we fished) for so long, directly under the shadow of the Holland Peak Ridge, Dan and I decided we had to return the following weekend to bag the summit. Chris joined the party. Though the climb is less than 5 miles, it gains over 5200’ and includes some exposed Class 4 terrain just before the summit. I was on the edge of my comfort zone, but we made it up and off safely. Holland Peak is a beast and she’s been quite good to us.
Vermont was a total bust. I felt flat from the start and was completely empty by mile 45. I walked for 15 more miles and then unceremoniously pulled the plug. Beyond sad, beyond defeated, beyond frustrated, I was hollowed out. Utterly finished. Sick of feeling like shit, sick of being in pain, sick of not being able to run and race like I once could. In that moment, I resolved to stop pushing this string and figure out what the heck has been ailing me. What the hell happened to this guy who was at one point a decently mediocre runner?
The Short Story:
I’m in a ditch, have been in it for a while, and have finally decided to stop digging.
The Long Story:
My intent is not for this to be some sort of melodramatic “Woe is I” story. I share this not for your sympathy, but more in the hope that what I have learned over the last two years might resonate and aid others who have experienced similar frustration. In general, life is great and the ensuing story firmly belongs in the category of First World Problems. And so be warned, this isn’t a short story, but I hope it’s one to which you or someone you know can relate.
Outside of one major injury setback in 2009 (sacral stress fracture), my ultra running career had followed a steady and respectably improving trajectory, peaking in 2011 with 4 wins and several other strong races. I was feeling strong, building miles and learning how to mange my body effectively. Along with this, Maggie and I were growing our family and I was working toward my doctoral degree. The stress was consistent and non-trivial, but it felt manageable. Let’s face it, life was good and sure there was stress, but it was positive stress. We were working hard at what we love and making steady progress.
2011 closed with the birth of our second daughter, Charlotte. Charlotte was named in honor of Maggie’s father, Charles, who had been suffering with dementia and other associated ailments. Shortly after Charlotte’s birth, Chuck was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away 9 days later. The family rallied around Ruth, Maggie’s mother, and for a few months we were spending several nights a week going back and forth to Mercer Island from our home in Seattle to be with family, mourn together, and heal. Through these unstable times, I dove into training. It was something I could control, something I could escape in.
As endurance athletes, we exist on the edge of sustainability, pushing ourselves to the limit, and then relenting just enough to recover and push again, extending that limit further. Sometimes we go too far and there are normal mechanisms designed to clip our wings: overuse injuries, sickness, malaise, etc. Through the spring of 2012, I was managing a lot, but seemed to be handling it well. My dissertation was on schedule for a successful defense and publication, the kids were doing well, Maggie was wrapping up her work at Swedish, I secured a faculty post at the University of Montana, and was prepping for our move with the sale of our home and the purchase of a property in Missoula. Through this I maintained a respectable training load of 80-100 miles per week, along with some solid early season results. I did notice, however, that I was I slower to recover than in previous seasons. What I dismissed as the effect of age, I should have recognized as a warning sign.
If at this moment I could have stepped back a bit – zoomed out – and examined my life holistically, I would have seen the Wall approaching. That Wall being the limit of my limits.
In May I defended my dissertation, completed our real estate transactions and ran a to a strong 2nd place at the Sun Mt 50-miler. In retrospect I was now right at the base of that Wall. 3 days after Sun Mt, I travelled to Bend for two days of Patagonia product development meetings and associated trail runs, followed immediately by Scott’s bachelor party in Las Vegas. After a day of transition at home, I left for a 2-day Patagonia video shoot deep in Olympic National Park. After a first day of running back and forth in 45-degree weather wearing very little, I started to feel impending illness. See if you can detect it here, in my voice over for the video we produced…
The shoot wrapped and I travelled home, stuffing myself with every homeopathic, anecdotal and superstition-based remedy I could find. No way I could get sick now! Graduation was approaching, as was the meat of my Angeles Crest 100 training. But the Wall had other ideas. I tried to climb it, but it knocked me down – flat on the couch for 2 solid weeks. The doc thought it was mono, but since I had had mono in high school, he said it was probably something similar and would run its course in due time. “Tincture of Time” was his catch phrase; something I now realize foretold my current reality.
Graduation came and went - too sick to enjoy it and in too much of a rush to celebrate in any meaningful way. Maggie pushed to have some sort of celebration, urging me to recognize the significance of the accomplishment. But there was no time for that…I had to get back to training…AC was just around the corner and we had to get ready for the move. I felt like the additional stress of scheduling, planning and executing a party - a party for me - was just too much. Think about that for a moment. Sure, I really don’t like attention and any recognition I do get makes me a bit uncomfortable, but the fact that I couldn’t step out of my downward spiral long enough to celebrate the completion of a 7-year project, a project for which Maggie (emphasis on Maggie) and I had made significant sacrifice, should have been troubling.
Once I thought I had kicked the bug, I stuffed my schedule with as many miles as I could, cramming for the impending exam that was Angeles Crest. I felt pretty crummy, but I figured I had to work through the setback of the illness in order regain form. The schedule for race week was crazy tight, but seemingly (naively) manageable: pack the house, fly to Boulder for Scott’s and Jenny’s wedding, then on to LA for Angeles Crest, race, then back home for a going-away party, followed by the move to Missoula. It didn’t take me long to realize the absurdity of this plan and describing it now feels ridiculous. What on earth was I thinking? The wedding was a blur, AC was a disaster from the start, and I went into the move deeply fatigued. Again, the Wall had stopped my feeble effort…
Once in Missoula, I thought I had hit the reset button. New town, new job, new training buddies and running on fantastic trails every day. Not learning a thing from the preceding months, I took off to Japan just two weeks into my first semester for the Shinetsu 5-mountains 110k. Another disaster. 5 days away from home with 48+ hours of total travel time. Not a formula for success, at least not for me. The Wall won. Super smart way to start a new job, my first as a university professor.
At that point, I said enough was enough. I took a few weeks of rest and resolved myself not to race again until I was ready. I checked in with the doc, got some blood work, and everything looked pretty good. A bit of rest and I should be fine.
A few weeks later, I began to run again and felt pretty terrible. That said, I was now running regularly with an insanely talented tribe of great guys: Foote, Wolfe, Swanson, Yates, Kollar… Whenever the trail tilted up I was instantly under pressure and could not hold the wheel. I didn’t give in to this feeling of getting my ass kicked daily. Sure I felt flat, but maybe that was just because I was chasing some elite dudes. But I also ignored the fact that I felt pretty bad whenever I ran alone. Before too long, feeling crummy morphed into the new normal. Endurance pursuits are about dealing with discomfort and I was caught in this mental limbo of wondering whether I was tired all the time from too much training, or just older, out of shape and in need of more training. I chalked it up to transition, family, work, and sleep deprivation - all reasonable and important ingredients in the cocktail of my malaise.
In spite of this, I managed a strong day at Chuckanut, a 3-min PR. I followed that with a respectable 3rd place at Pocatello. In the late stages of that race, however, I could feel that Wall again. After about 6 hours I really began to struggle. And were it not for the fact that after 40 miles the rest is pretty much all downhill, I wonder if would have finished. Fumes and gravity got me to the barn. This late-stage weakness was troubling and felt eerily similar to how I felt approaching the halfway mark at AC, as well as throughout my short day in Japan. With Vermont quickly approaching, I decided to back off the training by 15-20%: fewer miles, but more quality. The intervals and tempo work were a struggle, but I figured my clumsiness at pace was just another thing I needed to push through. “Sluggish” had become an all too regular adjective in my training log.
I was set up for success at Vermont, arriving at my folks’ place in NH a full week before the race. Plenty of time to adjust to the climate and catch up on sleep. As race day approached, the normal pre-100 mile nerves were there, but I was having trouble getting excited about the race, perhaps a manifestation of eroded confidence. After walking from mile 45-60 I dropped. I had no interest in walking 40 more miles; I didn’t want to do that to Maggie and my family. I’ve stared deep into the abyss in a few 100-milers and found a way out. This was not that. This was a sense of disturbing emptiness. I couldn’t summon the energy to care and that felt really shitty.
But in that moment of weakness and failure and humiliation, I resolved to stop digging. Figure out this Wall, whatever it is, and find a way over it, whatever that takes.
In the weeks since, I’ve been seeing some docs and running some tests. Two complementary theories as to my struggles have emerged, one from a naturopathic doctor and one from an MD.
Naturopath: Dr. Jamison Starbuck is a naturopath in Missoula who has been practicing for many years. She comes highly recommended from several people I trust. Dr. Starbuck thinks I probably never quite killed off the virus that I caught in June of last year, and that that virus is likely Epstein-Barr. Apparently Epstein-Barr can linger and thrive in a body under consistent stress. In periods of acute stress, whether a result of intense training and/or life stress, the resultant depletion of immune system resources gives the virus the green light to multiply and preserve itself. This constant pressure on my immune system explains my fatigue and the fact that I seem to have a head cold about 2 out of every 6 weeks. Dr. Starbuck also ran a saliva-based cortisol test. We took samples 4 times in a day to measure how that system was functioning. Cortisol is a stress-management hormone and under normal circumstances the body should produce it in a pattern that tracks the stress we encounter in a typical day. The normal curve of cortisol production usually spikes in the morning, calms down as the day progresses, and often has another smaller spike in the afternoon before calming down again in the evening. My cortisol levels are well below the normal range at all times of the day, and perhaps more concerning is the fact that there is very little change, if any, in my levels over the course of the day. These results suggest significant dysfunction in the adrenal system. The system has simply been overloaded for too long and is shutting down. Not good. The long-term effects of low cortisol can include some bad stuff – autoimmune diseases and a host of other things I don’t want. Furthermore, the accumulated stress has caused my gut to produce less acid that it should, leading to suboptimal digestion of proteins and fats. This has led to elevated liver and kidney enzymes as well as rising cholesterol, not to mention the effect of associated mal-absorption of nutrients on my recovery and performance.
Sports Med Doc: I’ve also been seeing Dr. Rob Amrine, an excellent sports medicine and family practice doctor in Missoula. Dr. Amrine is my primary care doctor and the one I saw initially back in September when I was feeling run down. He is concerned about the cortisol, although pointed out that since we only have a single test, albeit with multiple observations, we don’t really know what normal is for me. He agrees that the blood work is suboptimal but wasn’t quite willing to connect some of the theoretical dots that Dr. Starbuck was linking. On the prospect of Epstein-Barr virus, he was open to the possibility, but pointed out that testing for it is problematic because most adults have had some exposure to it (it’s the virus that causes mono) in our lifetimes. In sports medicine, Epstein-Barr has become a bit of a catchall diagnosis for the cocktail of overtraining/overstress. This makes good sense. Although I can track my demise to that severe illness of last year, perhaps this is just a mental construction. Maybe the virus is in there, maybe it’s not, but the reassuring news is that the treatment for my condition is the same either way.
On balance Dr. Starbuck and Dr. Amrine might differ in the specificity of their diagnostic views, but they agree that I am pretty fried and in need of significant rest and regeneration before I can return to any sort of training. The prescription: 3-6 months of rest, with limited (< 60 min/day) activity. Eliminate caffeine, which I have already done. This was actually easy since caffeine was having no effect on my non-responsive adrenal system. Reduce life stress and prioritize sleep. Eat more. Dr. Starbuck prescribed some hormonal and liver support supplements and though Dr. Amrine pointed out there was no hard scientific support for their effectiveness, he conceded that they couldn’t hurt and might help.
So there you have it. I’ve found the bottom of the ditch and am now digging my way out. I can see the ladder over The Wall and now just need to rebuild the tools to climb it. The few folks with whom I’ve shared this little sob story have been very supportive. The frustration with ending another lost season is overwhelmed by my excitement in the prospect of coming back strong again, regaining – no, exceeding, previous form.
If you read this far, there is likely something in this story resonates with you. Perhaps you have struggled with consistent flatness or have arrived at some sort of plateau, unable to move forward. With the proliferation of blogs, social media, Stava, irunfar, etc., there seems to be a glorification of the mountain ultra lifestyle. Big miles and big vert day in day out in the big mountains. It’s easy to feel like you aren’t doing enough. What those external influences do not account for, however, is the reality that each of us has our own set of life stresses, our own career-family formula to balance, and –perhaps most importantly – our own individual capacity for handling all of it. Mine is a story of continuing to push my training and racing to new levels while the demands on other areas of my life were multiplying exponentially. It was a formula for failure and that’s exactly what happened. The cliché is true, however. Our failures teach us more than our successes. Now I just have to learn from the failure of the last two seasons and come back stronger and smarter. Time will tell…
A couple of months ago, Koichi contacted me through Facebook and asked if I might be interested in pacing Tsuyoshi Kaburaki at the Bighorn 100. Pace a Japanese running legend though the wilds of the Bighorns? Why not!?! I had never met Kaburaki, but I remember watching him battle to a dramatic 2nd place finish at Western States in 2009, crushing the Masters course record in the process.
I jammed out to Sheridan on Thursday afternoon, recalling my journey along that stretch of road in 2008 with Scott - Mason and Regina providing the bulk of the musical entertainment. We connected at the hotel and enjoyed an early dinner during which Kaburaki and I assessed what little vocabulary we shared. I offered some thoughts on the course and Koichi and I dialed in the crewing plans. After that I connected with Matt Hart and Ellen Parker and watched them eat their dinner…which looked considerably better than ours. Great peeps that I’ve been missing. We finished up and the night was young, so I headed west on 14 up into the Bighorns in search of a place to camp. Scott, Mike and I spend a great few nights on the Bighorn plateau in 2008…I didn’t quite get that same spot, but I found another one equally spectacular. The only interruption to a great night of sleep was a rather intense hail storm that rolled through at about 1:00 - kind of exciting. 5:00 sunrise, some yoga, coffee and a very casual start to the day. The 11:00 start at Bighorn is kind of nice for that.
I met up with Matt and Ellen and Kaburaki and Koichi at the start line. It was still fairly cool, but sunny. Kaburaki seemed cool and calm and he cruised into our first crew point - Dry Fork, 13.4 miles - in about 6th place and looking comfortable. Next was the long drive out to Footbridge (Mile 30 and 65) that takes you into Montana, through the Crow Indian Reservation, and back into Wyoming on quite primitive roads…the sort of roads that are faster to run than drive. We arrived just as Kaburaki was fixin’ to take off, but we got him his stuff and he seemed quite calm amidst a small bit of chaos. I noted how little this phased him and was optimistic that poise would serve him well in the miles ahead.
From Footbridge runners head uphill for 17 miles to Jaws and then back to Footbridge. Since I was set to pace starting from this spot, I could not join Koichi for the drive to the Jaws turnaround as we would not make it back to Footbridge in time. That meant a 6 or 7 hour hang-out for me. I quickly befriended the Sheridan Search and Rescue folks as they typically have the best set up for staying warm, nourished and comfy. These folks did not disappoint. Sure it was a long wait, but they made it fun.
At about 10:25 Zach Miller rolled through in the lead looking really alert and solid. Great, positive energy. Nikki Kimball (there to pace Gary Gellin) and I helped Zach through a shoe and sock change, got him refueled and reloaded and off into the night. Kaburaki had left Footbridge on the way out in 3rd behind Zach and Matt, but managed to get through Matt at some point and strode back into the aid station at about 11:00. Pretty quick transition and we were off into the night. From Footbridge, the course climbs rather steeply for about 3 miles. Koichi had told me Kaburaki prefered the pacer to follow, so I just settled in behind him and tried to communicate the gap to Zach and the distance remaining…35 minutes and 58k.
After the steepest sections, the course then rolls - mostly up - for next 15 miles or so to Dry Fork. There are a few remote aid stations in between and we were getting information indicating the gap to Zach was closing. During this section, Kaburaki asked me to take the lead and push the pace. We were moving very efficiently through the cold night (25-degrees?) with the only hiccup being a moment of belly upset during the final climb to Dry Fork, at Mile 82.
Dry Fork is the last major aid and the gap was reported at 15 minutes. Kaburaki’s only words were “fast, fast” as we reloaded with Koichi and got back on course. Ellen indicated Matt was doing well in 3rd place and we could see his light making it up the slog to Dry Fork.
It was now clear the hunt was on and Kaburaki was moving very well with intense focus. Next aid station; gap = 10-12 minutes, then 8, then 5. We were closing and Kaburaki was getting stronger and stronger. Dawn was close and as we grinded up the final steep climb, I really wanted to catch a glimpse of Zach’s light to give some confirmation of our progress. Few things are more motivating than seeing a light in your sights in the later miles of a 100-miler. As we crested the hill and began the descent into the Tongue River Valley, we got that impetus, seeing Zach’s light several switchbacks down the hill. We were inside of 10 miles to go and my thoughts oscillated between concern over running out of distance versus pushing him over the edge to make the catch. This descent is rugged and beautiful with some nasty steep sections. Kaburaki was moving quite smoothly and I pointed to Zach’s dark jersey in the distance.
Once it was clear Kaburaki would make the catch, I dropped behind to get out of the way. This was a moment for these two to sort out and as a pacer, a third-wheel in many ways, I did not want to interfere. Kaburaki tucked in behind Zach for a couple minutes and we soon hit the mile 93 aid station. Zach stepped off to get some aid and Kaburaki hit the gas. Over the next two miles of rolling valley trail, Kaburaki crushed any descent and kept an honest effort on the climbs. We hit the final aid station at the road terminus just as they were setting up…always nice to catch the peeps off-guard.
The last 5 miles of Bighorn are a real drag - a seemingly endless dirt-road slog straight into the morning sun. Kaburaki soldiered on, not saying much. I tried to keep the mood light and looked back a few times to make sure no one was catching us. When we finally made the turn into Scott Park, Kaburaki smiled and allowed some emotional release. An incredible finish to an inspirational effort. It was indeed an honor to be along for the ride. Kaburaki is a class act - a wonderful soul and tough as nails.
Bighorn is a great event, low-key, no frills, yet tough and superbly organized. Check it out!