A Grand Race in the Grand Tetons

The Grand Teton 100 Miler looked perfect. It was the right weekend in that it did not interfere with vacation plans, it looked to be in a beautiful spot, and the race directors appeared to know what they were doing. So just like that I became committed to the Grand Teton 100 Miler in Alta, Wyoming, on Sept. 5 and 6. 

It turned out to be the right choice. It was a beautiful course, Jay and Lisa put on a well-organized, great event, and the volunteers could not have been more friendly.
There was just one thing I did not fully appreciate when I signed up. About 75% of the course is between 8,000 feet and 10,000 feet. For some that might not matter. I tend to have problems at altitude. The only 100 miler I did not finish was the Tahoe Rim 100 Miler and that was at a similar altitude.
So I knew going in that the course would be hard for me. What I didn’t realize is that it would be the hardest thing that I had ever done.
But let’s start at the beginning.
I fly via Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole and rent a car for the drive over the pass in the Grand Tetons. The race takes place in Wyoming, but one only can drive there through Idaho.  So over the pass I went to the town of Driggs, Idaho. I stocked up at the local grocery store and headed uphill to the Grand Targhee ski resort.
The resort is on Fred’s Mountain, which is on the west side of the Grand Tetons. The famous peak and its sister peaks are visible from much of the resort. Race check in included a briefing on the course and a medical review. Then it was a quick dinner at the resort’s restaurant in preparation for the 6 a.m. start.
This is a four loop course of a clover leaf design. That means on each loop one goes through the start-finish area three times per loop. So it is easy to stage supplies and there is no need for a crew. The race began with a 2,000 foot, 2.8 mile climb up Fred’s mountain. This was all on a dirt road that mountain bikers use. The views were fantastic, though the lack of oxygen made this very tough for me.
There is aid at the summit and then one runs back down the road to the start-finish area. From there, one starts a 15 mile loop. It begins on a dirt road and one climbs gradually for just more than a mile before cutting across a ski slope and starting a long descent that goes from double-track trail to single track trail. The rest of this section consists of some short ups and a lot of downs as one drops to 6,800 feet, which is the low point on the course. The last few miles are forested and a bit rocky. I emerged on a forest service road and two short uphills later I was at the aid station.
From there, it was a three mile climb on a paved road. This was never steep. It just kept going up and up with many S turns. At the top was another aid station. That lead to single track into the forest with more down than up for the first mile and then more up than down for the next mile or two. At this point, one rejoins the first 3 miles of the start of this loop. That means a very steep climb to the ski slope and then a gradual downhill to the start-finish area.
Next up are miles 20 to 25. This is known as Rick’s Basin. After leaving the start-finish area on a dirt road, one ends up on a single track. This was different than the rest of the course when one mostly either was climbing or descending. This was a lot of pointless ups and downs, a lot of exposed running, and many twisting trails.
So that was the course. The first time through was easy. It took 52 minutes to climb Fred’s mountain and about 5:45 to finish the loop. And I didn’t really feel any altitude sickness. Then I climbed Fred’s for a second time. It took about 1:10, but seemed far harder and much steeper. My legs felt great, but I just didn’t have the same energy.
That lack-of-energy feeling stayed with me as I entered the 15 mile loop. I was eating and drinking constantly. In fact, I did the best job hydrating that I’ve ever managed to pull off. And my electrolytes were in check.
The climb up to the ski slope on the return to the start-finish area was painful and I entered Rick’s Basin with a pretty poor attitude. I finished the loop and decided to immediately climb Fred’s Mountain so I’d get it out of the way. It took 1:30 to get up the mountain and I just didn’t feel great. I wasn’t nauseous, my legs did not hurt and I didn’t even have a headache. I just lacked energy, which was discouraging.
So I decided to take a break. My room was 100 feet from the start-finish area. So I went to the room, washed off all the salt and sweat, put on dry clothing, re-lubricated my feet, and relaxed for 15 minutes. Then I headed out for the 15 mile loop in the dark.
I was miserable. I just didn’t have the energy to make my legs go. And that made my attitude get worse and worse. I finished the 15 mile loop, which meant I was at mile 70. It was 4 a.m. and I just couldn’t bear to face Rick’s Basin. In fact, I dreaded it.
I went into the ski resort club house and sat down with a slice of pizza. Lisa, one of the RD’s came in to see how I was feeling. I confessed that I wasn’t sure I could get back out there and that I just didn’t have any energy left.
She said I was far enough ahead of the cut off that I should sleep on the floor for an hour and reassess. My head hit the carpeted floor and I was out in 10 seconds. I woke at 5 a.m. and felt much better. I loaded my Camelback back up, grabbed my lights and headed into Rick’s Basin feeling renewed. By 7 am I was climbing Fred’s Mountain. It was still very hard, but I was up in 1:10 and felt good as the marathon runners came cruising past. The 15 mile section went without a hitch and I even felt strong climbing up to the ski slope. I didn’t even stop at the start-finish. I simply shouted “ Number 15 in, Number 15 out” as I entered Rick’s Basin.
At this point, adrenalin took over and I finished Rick’s only slightly slower than my first time through the basin. I crossed the line in 32:41.
That was my slowest 100 mile time by nearly four hours. Yet it also may be the 100 miler I am most proud of. I took it slow, rested when I needed to, and kept hydrated. This allowed me to finish a course at altitude.
Will I run another 100 at altitude? Probably not as I just don’t have the time with two kids to go out there and get acclimated. But I’m glad to have finished the run and would highly recommend this to others.
I spent Sunday night at the ski resort and then headed off the mountain on Monday morning. I got a fantastic breakfast at the Milk Creek Grille in Driggs and then crossed the pass to the Jackson, where I wasted a few hours exploring the town.
My legs felt great. In fact, I could have gone for a five mile run without much trouble. So the airplane ride home wasn’t too uncomfortable. I even enjoyed the layover in Salt Lake City at a fun brew pub in the airport.
The scenery on the run exceeded my expectations. One can see the Grand Tetons on many points of the course and many other majestic mountains are visible. But this involved a lot of dirt road. Of the 25 miles per loop, about 10 miles was pure single track, about 3 miles was paved, and the rest was a cross between a fire road and a double track trail.
The trip was well worth it and I’d highly recommend the run.