On the Bubble Again
Wasatch Front 100, 2004
by Jack Andrish
This has been quite a year for this aspiring ultrarunner. After completing the Western States 100 earlier this summer (after two prior unsuccessful attempts), I was now poised to try the Wasatch Front 100. As my account from last year can testify (see attached), I had experienced the first 83 miles last year and was looking forward to experiencing the whole course this year. So as we lined up at 5 AM on a dark, desolate road in Kayesville, Utah with access to the Bonneville Trail, I remembered the starter’s advice from last year. “Don’t get lost; go!” Simple advice but to the point.
It’s interesting how our memories can mercifully block out pain and effort. I had remembered the thrill of climbing “Chinscraper” and the surprise I had when I attempted to look back down the trail from the top and couldn’t see it because of the steepness, but I somehow had forgotten the miles of climbing leading up to the Chinscraper Bowl following the initial 3 or 4 miles of the gentle rolling Bonneville Trail (which of course I did remember). And I had forgotten most of the ups and downs that followed and I definitely had forgotten the briars and brambles and general scraggly brush that continually cut at my arms and legs. But once on top the ridge, the next 40 miles of daylight provided the most spectacular views of the Wasatch mountain range, mountain meadows, Aspen groves, as well as the Salt Lake basin 5000 feet below. As my daughter Shannon had mentioned last year, it was like being in a picture.
Salt Lake City has had a very cool summer this year by their standards and no rain was forecast for the weekend. Great! But the bad news was that Saturday was to be the hottest day of their summer and it was, with temperatures reaching 94 degrees. As a flatlander from Ohio I would be expected to have some difficulty with the altitude, but add to it the effects of heat and the result was a spectacularly beautiful but brutally harsh first 50 miles. My goal of course was to finish the course in “Badger time” of less than 36 hours. I had studied the split times for Badger and Cougar (30 hour) times and I studied the “absolute cutoff” times for each aid station. And I had studied my “splits” from last year when my bubble finally burst at Pole Line (83 miles). Learning from my experience at Western States this year I now understood that to be actually running the “Badger time” splits was not enough of a cushion to accommodate the bad patches and the expected unexpected events that occur in the solitude of a 100 miles of backcountry trail. I needed to be at least an hour ahead of Badger time splits.
And so I was a bit disappointed when my first recorded time was over Badger time and even 10 minutes over my last year’s time. And I continued on that tardy pace throughout the day; not that I had any control over it. I struggled with the heat and my stomach. I came to hate GU; and electrolyte drinks; and even water! Nothing would stay down. I arrived at the 53-mile mark at Lamb’s Canyon 15 minutes behind last year’s schedule (and an hour and 15 minutes behind my hopes for this year). At Lamb’s canyon, however, things got better. Sue Ellen and my son-in-law Jamil met me; poured chicken broth down me; and put a dry shirt and jacket on me and Jamil proceeded to be my first pacer. He was great. We marched up the 3000 feet of climb of Lamb’s canyon trail and then ran down an idyllic trail joining a parallel stream and then up 3 miles of road to the Big Water aid station where Sue Ellen took over to nudge me up and over Desolation Lake; up to Scott’s Peak, and then on to Brighton. It was mystical!
In Brighton I found out that Sean had already finished and had run a good race. He did have problems with heat midway through the day and spent an hour and a half resting and rehydrating in the Alexander Ridge Aid Station, but he rallied and finished in 25:01; good for a tenth place finish.
Between Jamil and Sue Ellen, I had made up 45 minutes of time coming in to Brighton and I believed (mistakenly) that I now had a 30-minute “cushion.” That illusion soon evaporated as some blister care and a change of clothes (and more chicken soup) devoured more time. My crew all told me that I “had a chance of making it” in time if I kept pushing. Kept pushing?! At this point I had just one speed (slow) with only one effort (maximum). So Shannon and I trudged out of Brighton in the daylight; up and over Catherine’s Pass and more up and over Point Supreme. Then down; then up; then down; then up until I doubted my senses. “Surely it won’t be this hard all the way to the end?”
I also became just a bit paranoid on this stretch. It began with Jamil telling me “I had a chance to make it” if I continued to push; with Sue Ellen repeating the mantra; and Shannon quietly, but firmly, continuing the routine. I became convinced (now supported by my “fuzzy logic”) that they all had come up with the scheme to keep me in the dark on my true pace and probability of finishing by not telling me that in truth I had a comfortable cushion. And so, I continued to push the hills, but I had the belief that I had an hour or two cushion. (Should I push really hard and finish in 34 hours or “enjoy the day” and still finish in 35 hours?) Oh my.
Wasatch was beautiful. Life was good. I was struggling up the hills, but comforted in my belief that I was OK on time. We left the last aid station at Pot Bottom with 2 hours and 15 minutes to cover 7 miles. By now my ability to calculate was totally shot; but not to fear. Shannon was still telling me that I had a chance to make it in time (Oh yeh; “wink..wink!”) And so we went up out of Pot Bottom looking for the last downhill trail out of the backcountry and into Midway. OK. So now we had 3 miles of downhill and an hour to do it in. “A piece of cake!” Life was good. The Aspen were absolutely beautiful! And then it happened. Ahead on the trail was Sue Ellen. Great; but she looked worried. She should look happy; joyous even. But she didn’t. And then came Chris (Sean’s friend and pacer from Tucson). Chris had run this race before and knew the course well. Chris looked concerned. What’s going on here? The Aspen were absolutely stunning and we should be skipping hand in hand into Midway together; celebrating a grand and glorious weekend in Wasatch. But we weren’t. Instead EVERYONE, Shannon, Sue Ellen and even Chris were telling me that if I ran really hard, I could make it. Really hard? At 98 miles! Oh well, there are times in life that we really have no choice. We had come too far to miss this opportunity to finish in Badger time. Chris ran. Shannon ran. Sue Ellen ran. I RAN. On my, when would we ever get off this (beautiful) trail and onto the road to Midway and the Homestead? My stomach hurt. I felt sick. I wanted sooo much to walk a bit; just a bit; but my pacers and crew wouldn’t hear of it. We ran; probably faster than I had run at any point in the race. And still they wouldn’t let up! “You have a chance to make it (only) if you keep running!” I’m sick. I’m dizzy. Oh my; we’re off the trail and on the road, but my God where did this head-wind come from? And now it’s even raining! I can’t see! My contacts, peltered by nearly 36 hours of heat and dust and no-sleep have glued themselves to my eyeballs and have rendered me nearly blind. I follow Shannon onto the final grassy field leading to the finish line. Shannon pulls away to let me finish unfettered in victory. But I can’t see. “Just run under the finish line.” “What finish line?” “That finish line; under the white banner.” “What banner?” I can’t see. I’m sick. I’m running. I’m going to vomit right here on this grassy field, somewhere in the vicinity of a white banner that is apparently the finishing line. “Shannon, don’t leave me. Let me follow you to the finishing line; I can’t see!”
I’m told that it was raining when we finished the 100 miles of the Wasatch Front last Saturday. I don’t really remember that now. I can barely remember the nausea and fatigue of the last “sprint” to the finish. What I do remember are the cheers I heard from my friends of the VHTRC (they’re everywhere!); the smile on Sue Ellen’s face; the warmth of knowing Shannon and Jamil and Sean were there to share the day; finally being close enough to see the banner signifying “finish”; and yes, the Aspen. The Aspen were spectacular!
Finisher, Wasatch Front 100 mile Endurance Run