Updated: Oct 4, 2022
I was sitting in a workshop last January when an unexpected message from my friend Ben Bliss popped up: "Is that your name I heard for the Wasatch 100?" My heart stopped. The lottery draw is live streamed on YouTube each year. I was anxious and avoidant to check. I have a revolving list of races I want to run, but Wasatch has been a fixed star for years.
300 lucky runners start, and a little over half finish (155 this year). Wasatch started in 1980 and it remains no frills, come-as-you-are, you vs. the mountain race. In the language of the native Ute people, Wasatch means "mountain pass" or "low pass over high range." The course traverses ridges through the Wasatch front and climbs 24,000'. It is dusty, it will boil your skin, it will freeze your marrow, there are few reprieves from loose rocks, and you'll scratch your way through gambel oak on remote trails probably by yourself.
"The primitive and isolated nature of the course is both its beauty and its challenge, for it requires the individual runner to rely primarily on himself or herself rather than the race’s support systems. Wasatch is not just distance and speed; it is adversity, adaptation and perseverance."
- Wasatch 100
There aren't many crew points at this race (three) or pacer exchanges (four, but I only used three). I had Dustin Sandquist pace the first 20, fresh off Ouray 100 and UTMB-two-weeks-ago legs, Edward Sousa pace the next 22, fresh between the second and third races of the triple crown of 200s, and back to Dustin to pace the final eight to the finish. You'd think we would be a ragged crew, but those guys have legs of iron and a joke in their back pocket at all times. I could not have asked for better, and that's true.
The race start is the same useless energy as them all: ate half a muffin, chugged an Ensure, walked up an unknown road in the dark with the reflective herd jostling - felt everything and nothing. Wait for the end:
With a short countdown, the human drama commenced.
The curtains open with a 4,000' climb straight up to the ridge line on single track. I was cautioned to start up front and avoid the slow train, and this advice was very useful. I found first light and friends at the top; Barkley pointed out the belt of Venus behind us. The earth was still.
As we started down the other side, I was curious what the day would hold. No hundred is the same as another, and even the same races don't repeat themselves. I came to finish under 30 hours. I've raced a lot with Dustin and friends this year, but Wasatch mattered just to me.
Sometimes this course rewards your climbing with gradual, runnable downhills - and sometimes not. For miles and miles you traverse across the high ridges of the Wasatch Front.
And then it got satanically hot.
Photos of golden fields do nothing to convey the power of exposure. However, there was a breeze and Salt Lake's temps register higher (only a day or two before the weather hit triple digits), so as much as I'd like to complain about this, I think I'm secretly thankful. I was also thankful that I'd taped some things ahead of time to avoid much chafe.
Ultras are highs and lows, and this is old news because it's often true. A low in an ultra looks like this: this is terrible, this trail is trash, why am I out here, I don't know if I can keep going, I just need this to be over, this hurts too much, maybe I can hike it in. Highs look like this: I love running! I love mountains! I love singing bad 90s music! CAN YOU TAKE ME HIGHER.
I do not love races where I slingshot between emotions (hello Bigfoot circa 2019). I no longer run ultras to traipse through trauma. I am from Minnesota, and we are a steady and stolid people. There is enough genuine challenge, doubt, happiness, humility, suffering, patience, and drama confronting you during an ultra that running recklessly on these emotional waves is not necessary to grow. To be forced inward. I feel that I ran this race on my terms. I was partially there to execute. I felt it all but held the reigns.
I first saw Dustin at mile 31, slammed a bubbly water, grabbed a bag of gummy bears, and took off. He was ready for the quick switch, had everything icy, surprised me with those gummy bears (I love them but they melt) and helped me transition quickly. I had no complaints other than being hot and thirsty. I made a game-day call of switching into my Osprey pack with a bladder full of ice water. This was accidental genius: a lot of people baked and ran out of water during the next 11 miles, and I got to the next aid station with ice cubes still against my back.
"Your aid stations are faster than my pee stops." - Ed Brown
I saw my crew next at 48, and I took the time to check out a sore toe (kicked a rock) and change my socks while I was at it. This was a great decision that led to really good feet the rest of the race. This time, I pre-taped my lousy little pinky toes, which forever smush and blister, and it was magic. I will 1000% always do that in the future.
I picked up Dustin and we started the long climb out of Lamb's Canyon (see mile 50).
It is tough to eat enough when it's hot, but I tried.
It seems that I throw up black stuff pretty often (hello, Bryce Canyon) and it doesn't feel awesome. I was ready with a strong antacid from the doc and a fierce determination not to repeat 40 barfy miles like my last hundred. Plenty of people can run 50 miles and hike 50 miles. It's impressive, sure, but it's not what I came to do. To get sub-30 on a course that tough is to continue to run, even to the end. This is nearly impossible with constant dry heaving.
I expelled the sour and kept going. This happened again ten miles later, but it helped. Better out than in? Dustin and I have run thousands of miles together and has seen this before. Last time, he rubbed my back and said helpful l things but I was mad he didn't get it on video to send to our friends, so this time he learned. It almost feels like cheating when he's on the trail with me because of the courage and also encouragement that he naturally carries with him.
And as Ben Light taught me a million years ago while pacing me - keep eating! Even if you can't or won't or whatever lousy attitude you have about it is. No excuses. Puke, keep eating, puke, keep eating, eventually your digestive system will get the message. Chicken soup and ginger ale went down and never came back up, and this turned out to be the worst of the stomach issues I'd face for the rest of the race.
According to the race website, the Top Ten Ways To DNF At Wasatch:
10) Wear new shoes.
9) Wear old socks.
8) Waste energy getting mad at little things.
7) Try for that terrific 36 hour “SUNTAN”. Would you stick your head in a microwave?
6) Forget to plan for difficult weather: wind, rain, cold, heat.
5) Wasatch only goes up to 10,500 feet elevation. No one ever has altitude problems, right?
4) Forget to consume calories.
3) Think you are staying hydrated by drinking at aid stations only.
2) Rely totally on ribbons to guide your way. Does the word “lost” have meaning to you?
1) Not making friends with Mr. SALT and Mz. ELECTROLYTE.
This list should be obvious to anyone with a few notches in their belt. I made one small, spiteful error in judgment. I was so hot during the day and had such a huge canyon to climb out of that I told my crew it was too damn hot and I'd get cold clothes at the next one (20 miles away). I was left with only a Houdini jacket (which is the best jacket on earth, but it's featherlight) and my stubbornness.
I know how quickly mountains change. I am a mountain runner. I don't know what I was thinking. The night was windy, mocking, and mean. The miles went by, but the section demanded significant climbing, which is slow. Much slower than running. The wind pushed through the jacket and my hands froze. My nose ran. My lips started cracking. For miles we moved and shivered along the high cold ridges and places called Desolation Lake. We needed to get down.
My wet under layer was glued to me, my hands were red, and the rigor mortis was setting in by the time we got to Brighton Lodge. Dry clothes, broth (always broth), Ensure, coffee. I wanted to lay down for 10 minutes and rest, but would it help? Nothing was actually wrong. If you run ultras, you need to be able to discern what is important and what isn't. When in doubt, it's probably not important. Being tired and cold is not very important (I could see fine, my spirits weren't low, and it's ok to be miserable sometimes). This was my longest stop of the race.
Edward and I took off to head up Scott's Peak, the highest point at 10,500'. The nausea came back during the climb, but we staved it off one last time and it slinked off for good. The night was slower than I'd have liked, but the course is also technical and relentless. I have no regrets. Edward knows more about running ultras, shoes, and races than just about anyone. He's a much better endurance athlete than he'd ever be caught giving himself credit for. Also he's funny.
We hit Ant Knolls, my second mistake. I remember drawing little bumps and being excited about aid station close together.
A 'knoll' is a small hill or mound. Ant Knolls is a strenuous vertical climb up technical rock that caught me totally off guard. The understatement would normally amuse me, but at that moment I was exhausted and my heart was racing.
During the climbs I was often too tired to talk, but he understood. He talked anyway and I loved it. Edward has never DNF'd a race and he's run hard stuff. I've not met many people with as much sense and stupidity as him. Plus he's a gifted artist and photographer (see photo above and the next bunch below, all IG and facebook photos that are remotely nice are also thanks to Edward and the Edward Sousa School of Photography).
I took one minute to sit down on the trail and rub my eyes. We made it so long (soooo long) to get to first light, and first light refused to grace the mountain. I think it was close to 6am and we were still fighting the dark in headlamps. My brain gave up trying to focus my eyes and I was sleepy.
Worse, I was wrong. We were only at mile 83. #runnermath
I grew impatient to get off the mountain. I knew we had only a long handful of miles left, but we were still up so high. I thought that if we could start heading down that things would go faster and feel better. I knew I still had a lake to run around and some other stuff, and that was all several miles, so why was I still up so high?
That is an easy mistake in an ultra, and it is at best miserable and at worst fatal for your race: allow impatience. Think too far ahead. Get anxious.
The truth was that I had 17 miles left, a lot of damn mountain and uphills to run still, and even when we got to the descent I was antsy. We called it greased marbles. Edward and I slid all over the place down this chute of powdery gray dust and small loose rocks beneath the dust. I fell several times, which hurts on 80 mile legs, and it was so steep that it was just as slow as climbing.
I started doing math. This pace wasn't fast enough. The time I thought I could make up going downhill was costing me more. At the next aid station, I realized we were an aid station behind what I thought we were, which is how my math was three miles off, and my 30 hour finish was suddenly at risk. That thought was a bell in my head.
In these times there is only one question: what would Goggins do?
As I was stumble-rushing down, Edward made me stop to see the second sunrise. For a lightning moment I was irritated, but I'm glad he did. He was right. These pictures he took is half the reason we run in the first place. Watching the world wake up as you move quietly along its ridges with exhausted legs, salty skin, and crows feet is not an experience many can boast again and again.
The marbles ended. The descent eventually ended, kind of. We cruised through aid stations (I did have coffee and cookies at every aid station at this point, or donuts I chucked into the woods when Edward wasn't looking. He's militant about eating). I ran everything I could, gentle uphills too.
I was in single digits.
The final pacer exchange: 8 miles left, all trail with a short uphill road to the finish line.
Dustin and Edward traded out, I shed all my night layers, and the only work left was a few hot miles. These easy miles would be the ones leading out of the wilderness. The downhill hurt, but you can run on hurt legs. I'll share something personal.
The AA group that taught me how to stay sober was a pre-dawn group in Colorado Springs. The meetings were to-the-point and honest, full of business people starting their workday. At the end, we held hands and prayed together (much of AA is like church if you did not know). But then a grin would run around the room, flickering across the lips of professionals and the faithful, and we'd say in unison, "Get another day motherfucker." Amen.
If this sounds crass, let me level with you: you don't end up in those rooms unless you've been somehwat of a motherfuck in your life, every one of them. Me too. It's better to call a spade a spade and grow. I grinned and repeated to myself, "Climb another hill, motherfucker, run another step." Be better than you were. The irony isn't lost on me. I guess my existential purpose is to remind the world that there are not shortcuts to anywhere worth going.
So, that's what I did. I took another step. I took back my time. Dustin had the math already figured out for what my pace needed to be, and that little window opened wider and wider. Instead of stressing, we started to enjoy the morning together. We chatted happily and moved on. The biggest ridges were now firmly in the rearview.
I had heard rumors about the lake, and none of them were nice. I do not think I'll ruin this part for anyone who is going to run Wasatch in the future. I'll add to the myth. Watch out for the lake, and wear sunscreen. The air was starting to boil again and it was only mid-morning.
The dirt turned to road. The road turned to highway. I heard a runner behind me but I did not care. Too hot. Then Edward called us and told me to run faster, so I did.
There is a rush of relief when you see the finish of a hundred. It's funny how friendly and familiar something like a parking lot full of cars, or cones set up in a road, makes you feel home after spiraling through the woods for 29 hours. 29:22 to be exact.
Spirit of the Wind: Knowing, wily, and confident, the Spirit of the Wind is a friend of the mountains. Runners finishing the course within 30 hours will be awarded the Spirit of the Wind belt buckle made of inlaid Lapis.
I was immediately broken, almost like it was my first hundred. Hot, cold, too tired to stand, too restless to lay down, thirsty but couldn't drink, full even though I was empty. It took a few hours to come back to humanness. Even that night I couldn't sleep. However, I felt perfect. I did what I said I would. I ran my race. I was proud and humble, soft and hard at the same time. Almost sad it was over, but ready to say goodbye.
That was hard. That was a hard race. I loved it.
To conquer without peril is to win without glory.