A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Month: July 2017

Guided by Voices: A Bryce 100 Race Report

“Feed the Good Wolf.” –Yassine Diboun

“Don’t stop now, don’t stop now.” –Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices

“The sun was rising up from the fields / I got a feeling I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away / And if your friends think that you should do it different / And if they think that you should do it the same / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away / And if you feel you got everything you came for / If you got everything and you don’t want no more / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away.”  –Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Introduction

In our initial discussion about choosing my first 100-miler, I led by saying I wanted to run Plain 100. Yassine politely laughed. It’s a notoriously difficult race, but I didn’t want to cherry pick an easy course. He said, “I know you could do it, but let’s not start with a post-graduate race.” He suggested choosing a destination race that didn’t involve too much travel. I needed a June race, since I had the BFC and Big’s Backyard waiting in the fall and wanted to be rested and recovered. “Bighorn?” Polite laugh. I started my research and came across a promotional video for Bryce 100. The landscape was just stunning, and I’m a total sucker for a good promotional race video. True, it was probably just as challenging as Bighorn–it was in a desert, at altitude, and had a lot of climb–but for whatever reason, Yassine gave me his blessing for this one, so I registered immediately.

On training runs, I would fantasize about how it would all play out. Initially, those visions were quite unambitious. It would be me crossing the finish line with a smile, proud to have accomplished this achievement. As my training progressed and I grew stronger, faster, and more confident, as I won races or took second, those fantasies evolved. They ranged from finishing in the top ten, then standing on the podium in third place, until, finally, I had won the race and set a new course record. If you’re gonna dream, dream big. Yassine started to say that he felt I was going to do really well at Bryce, and that I was made for this distance. I researched past runners and tried to calculate a finish time for myself by comparing our times at comparable ultras. I read every race report I could find, did heat training, made a meticulous plan for race day, and really let my Type-A side shine as I organized drop bags. I identified places in Utah to pick up supplies on the off chance my checked bag should go missing. I had backups for backups. I had everything I could possibly need stored away in drop bags, which would serve as my “crew.” After months of work, everything was falling into place.

There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in my mind. I didn’t need a crew; I didn’t need pacers. I was going to do this on my own, and I was going to crush the Bryce 100.

crew

My “crew.”

My Y family sent me off with words of wisdom. Terry S. said, “Whenever you start to focus on going too fast and getting caught up in competing, just hear my voice telling you to remember the two Fs: Fun and Finish.” He knows my competitive nature and knew I needed this reminder. Joe Corona suggested memorizing some good songs and maybe including “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Others shared similar goodwill sentiments, but Teri P.’s final words rattled me a bit: “Ellen, just know that it’s ok if you don’t finish. Just starting is an incredible accomplishment in itself. It’s ok if you don’t finish,” she repeated. The idea of not finishing had never occurred to me; not once. The seriousness with which she said this, though, stayed with me. I tried not to hear her words as I finalized my splits cheat-sheet that I would carry with me. I intentionally chose not to include cut off times, thinking there was no need for them and it would only take up space. In the back of my mind, I also thought that if I didn’t include them, then I wouldn’t be able to put myself in a position to use them.

The next evening, I rolled into Ruby’s, outside of Bryce, for packet pick-up and the pre-race briefing. I was pretty sleep-deprived, but the excitement of what the next day held gave me a boost. While depositing my drop bags, I met Joe Schrum, who guessed from my Gorge Waterfalls t-shirt who I was and admitted to Face Stalking me after seeing I was from Tacoma. It was nice to meet someone from back home. We chatted about the course a bit and discussed our goals. He was hoping for a sub-30. I stated three goals. The bare minimum goal: finish under the 36 hour cutoff. The realistic goal: finish sub-30. The reach goal: finish sub-26. (I didn’t mention the fantasy goal of setting a new course record, which was 23:50.)

That evening I took a little shake-out run through Panguitch and then got to bed relatively early. I didn’t have pre-race jitters and slept surprisingly well. The alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. and I began race morning rituals of loading in some calories, double-checking gear, hydrating, and then it was off to catch the shuttle for the start line.

flat Ellen

Flat Ellen, ready to rock.

I caught the 5:00 a.m. shuttle from Ruby’s, which dropped us at the start line with about 50 minutes to wait in the cold desert morning. There was a brisk breeze blowing, so we all shuffled around in an attempt to stave off the shivers. I knew in a couple of hours we would be longing for that cool wind. My stomach was a little upset, but I chalked it up to minor jitters. Light began to flank the north eastern horizon, and soon enough the race director gave last minute instructions before the collective countdown to “Go!”

Start Line to Thunder Mountain (Mile 0 to Mile 10.5)

In our pre-race talk, Yassine repeatedly circled back to the idea of being patient and not coming out too fast. I think he gave me more credit than I deserve when he said that he didn’t think this was a problem for me and that I was good about starting easy; in reality, I very much needed the reminders. My running buddy, Rich, also knowing me well, had given similar advice, advising me to see how I felt in the final 40k before I started racing. They are both seasoned 100-milers, and I have tremendous respect for their expertise, so I knew it was important to follow this suggestion.

We started off down a gravel road and had about 2 miles before we hit the single track trail. I had started about 3/4 of the way back, but in this opening section, I slowly made my way up through the pack. I didn’t push hard, but I didn’t want to get caught in a conga line once we reached the trail. Already the day was warming up, and the sun was barely peaking out above the mesas. I was happy with my position as we turned onto the trail. I had a good, steady pace going; not too fast but also making good time. This section was fairly rolling, and I recalled the advice that Rich’s friend who had run it the previous year, Joey, had given me. He said that I would be tempted to run this section but cautioned me not to because it would “come back to bite you in the ass.” It was, admittedly, tough not to run the rollers, especially when runners blew past me on the climbs. The voice in my head reminded me to be patient and not get caught up in racing so early; “let them go,” the voice said; “there’s a lot of miles ahead of you, and you’ll be passing them later.” I listened to the voice in my head, heard the voices of friends and mentors reinforcing this point, and settled in to a comfortable pace.

We hit some beautiful country in this first stretch. The limestone is a gorgeous orange/pink color that was quite lovely in the soft morning light. I power hiked the climbs and ran a steady pace on the downhills. A few miles in, I asked another runner to grab my Kool Tie bandana out of my pack for me. It was already pretty hot, and it would be crucial to keep my core temperature down. I fell into a rhythm and became the head of a small train of runners winding over the painted hills. Some of the downhills were too tempting for me to resist, so I picked up the pace a bit but mostly let gravity do the work. It felt good not to worry about holding up runners behind me. In the past, I’ve been very anxious about having runners behind me, to the point that I would continually step aside to let them pass.  I’ve been working on this a lot, and it seemed like progress not to be worried about them and not to step aside. I was relaxed and excited for the day that lay ahead

I don’t remember the exact split, but I believe I rolled into Thunder Mountain Aid Station in about 2 hours. This wasn’t break-neck speed by any means, but I was happy with the split. My stomach was still a little upset, but otherwise all seemed good to go. I stopped briefly to top off my water and use the nifty composting toilet, and then continued on. I made a bonehead move by missing the trail out of the aid station and ran down the road a ways until some nice runners called me back. I thanked them, laughed, and said, “I wanted get my idiot move out of the way early.”

Thunder Mountain to Proctor (Mile 10.5 to Mile 19)

Fair warning, things get pretty gross from here on out. I’m documenting this for myself so that I have a record of the run. Keeping in mind that friends and family will also be reading, I’ll try to keep the details vague enough so that it’s not completely disgusting. This is coming from someone who lived with a guy for almost 9 years and never farted in front of him, but it’s the reality of most of my race, so no use being shy about it, I guess.

Coming out of Thunder Mountain, I fell back into a steady rhythm. Once again, runners raced past me, but I was more relaxed and trusted that being patient would pay off. This section was quite exposed, and the day grew warmer. The odd feeling in my stomach was migrating into my gut and became more pronounced. It wasn’t clear what the issue could be, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t ignore it, at first. This became increasingly more difficult, though, and I felt my pace slacken a bit in response. It took another two hours to cover a shorter distance, which confirmed that I was slowing up. I had another run to the composting toilet and realized my condition was getting a little, um, loose, you could say. Fortunately, I had a drop bag with Imodium in it, and my hope was that this would take care of the issue.

Wanting some real food, I grabbed a potato, then refilled my water, and re-upped the Tailwind in my bladder. The potato was mostly raw, but I choked enough of it down to get some solid calories. I was efficient in both aid station stops so far, taking care of business quickly and not lingering any longer than necessary. I soaked my hat and arm sleeves in water to help cool me off and was surprised not to see anyone else doing the same. It was 10:00 a.m. and blazing hot. Imagine what late afternoon would bring. While I was slightly concerned about the feeling that was spreading inside me, I still felt good otherwise, and headed out not realizing how brutal the awaiting section would prove to be.

Proctor to Blubber Creek (Mile 19 to Mile 28)

This leg is, undoubtedly, the worst on the course. The climbs and descents are technical, steep, and mostly exposed, and you’re passing through as the day is really heating up. Given the amount of climb, you’re also getting up above 9,000 feet in altitude. These factors would work against runners, and most of us ran out of water along the way. The vaguely bad sensation in my stomach and gut evolved into something more akin to pain along this stretch. I started to cramp in my gut, feeling like I was full of gas. The impact from running aggravated the situation, and my pace slowed in response. Joe caught up to me at this point, and we shared a couple of miles together. At the five-hour mark, he made a short video clip. I was still in good enough spirits to sounds cheerful as he filmed, but I finally admitted out loud that something was wrong. He offered me Tums, but I was reluctant to break the Cardinal Rule of not trying something new on race day. Eventually, I had to let him pass, as my pace continued to decelerate.

The pain from cramping intensified, and another runner, seeing me struggle, pulled out a small pharmacopeia from his pack. I was amazed by the variety of remedies he carried. He didn’t have Pepto or Imodium, but he did have Gas-X. Thinking that I was just having a gas issue, and no longer caring about the Cardinal Rule, I gladly accepted and said, “Thanks, man. You probably just saved my race.” If only that were true.

I believed it was true, briefly, and managed to jog along. I hoped that the Gas-X, plus the Imodium I had taken, would clear things up. It hurt to run, but it was on that line between bearable and excruciating, so I jogged as best I could. The jog soon became a shuffle, the shuffle then interspersed with power hiking, and, finally, a power hike was all I could manage. I was in complete disbelief and incredibly frustrated, but each attempt to increase my speed resulted in almost unbearable pain.

This is horribly embarrassing to write, but I found that passing gas offered some relief. Whenever possible, and, of course, when no one else was nearby, I tried to pass some gas in the hopes that this would solve the issue. It wasn’t long, though, before I had to make a sudden emergency trip behind a tree, and I knew that things had gone from bad to worse. Much worse. It was clear that my situation was going to dehydrate me very quickly. I still had about 5 miles and stupid amounts of climbing to do before I reached the aid station, and my water was running low. I drank more conservatively.

When I reached a small creek, I stopped to soak my hat and arm sleeves again, grateful for the cold mountain water. Crossing over, I began an absolute monster climb. Despite my weakened state, I was still passing some runners who struggled up this climb. A woman caught me and we chatted briefly about the nasty ascent. I asked if she had any Pepto. She didn’t but offered me some Tums. I was done being cautious and happily took them, desperate for anything that would ease up this pain. She was a bit condescending as she said, “I remember when I was a baby ultra runner, someone gave me Tums, and I’ve carried them ever since.” I had bigger concerns than feeling resentment at her patronizing tone, so I took the Tums and pressed on.

Part way up the climb, I ran out of water. I was carrying 1.8 liters in my bladder and 34 ounces in soft flasks. I made additional visits to trees off the side of the trail. Despite the heat and exertion, I was no longer sweating. My stomach had started to bloat; it was puffed out and looked like I had a balloon under my shirt. The pain grew steadily intense, and running amplified it beyond belief. On the few little descents between climbs, I tried to run, but the pain would spasm up my sides and into my chest, nearly making me vomit from the shock of it. I’d never felt anything like this.

“Just get to the aid station,” the voice inside me said. “You’ll hydrate. They’ll have something to fix these problems. This will pass, and you’ll make up time.” I listened to the voice and pressed forward. My watch was off at this point, so I wasn’t exactly sure how far out I was from Blubber Creek. It seemed like it should be just around the next bend, but I would turn the corner only to see more trail stretch out. I felt a little panicky, not having water and knowing I was dehydrated pretty badly, but I suppressed that quietly nagging voice and focused on moving forward.

A wave of relief enveloped me when I rounded a corner and heard voices ahead. Real voices. I had reached Blubber Creek Aid Station. I pulled a volunteer aside and whispered, embarrassed, “Do you have any Pepto or Imodium?” He didn’t, and asked what was going on. I explained all of the problems, and he told me to sit for a minute and to sip water, slowly. “Like an I.V. drip,” he said. “Don’t eat unless you’re hungry. Let this stuff pass through and then eat, bit by bit, like an I.V. drip.” He liked that simile. I took comfort in the slow, calm way he spoke. I was reluctant to sit, though, so I wet my hat and arm sleeves, soaked my head in water, and sipped fluids. I made a couple visits to the composting toilet (which, by the way, beats the heck out of a port-o-let.) He returned with some Tums. He told me to take a few now, then gave me more to carry along, then sent me off by repeating his instructions on how to drink and eat every 5 minutes, “like an I.V. Drip; drip.”

Blubber Creek to Kanab Creek (Mile 28 to Mile 36)

This was one of the most mentally challenging legs of the course. It was a very runnable segment, but I was incapable of running. Any attempt resulted in excruciating pain. It was infuriating, because my legs felt great and ready to roll. To add insult to injury, the downhills were more uncomfortable than the flats and climbs, forcing me to slow down on the parts of the trail that I should have used to make up time. Additionally, I was ducking behind trees every 5-10 minutes now, and my stomach was even more ridiculously bloated, popping out my shirt like a yoga ball was underneath. Somehow I managed to laugh at the thought that I could now say that this race had both literally and figuratively turned into a real shit show.

The voices in my head became more prominent, and it was clear that there were two of them. One was negative in its focus, dwelling on how terrible I felt. It took it personally whenever a runner passed me and was disgusted with my performance. “You should be running. You should be miles ahead. Weaker runners are passing you, and making it look easy. This isn’t the race you trained for. You are weak. You can’t even suck it up and run. You are pathetic.”

The other voice drew upon Yassine’s mantra to “Feed the Good Wolf.” To paraphrase: there are two wolves warring within you. One is evil, the other is good. The outcome of the battle depends on which wolf you feed. Thus, feed the good wolf. This voice said, “Feed the Good Wolf. You’re well ahead of the cutoffs. Just keep making Relentless Forward Progress (this voice also cribbed from Frozen Ed Furtaw), just keep making the cutoffs. This pain can’t last forever. It will turn around; eventually you will be able to run again. Just gut this out. It’s not the race you trained for, but it’s the race you’ve got. Accept it for what it is, and move forward.”

I chose to feed the Good Wolf.

Coming out of Blubber Creek, two runners buddied up with me, Jeb and Clint. They were also reduced to power walking, each suffering from their own unexpected issues. It was nice to have company, and talking with them lifted my spirits and got me out of my head. We made light of our situation and found reasons to laugh. I said that, at this point, I just wanted to make the 36-hour cutoff. It was humbling to say it, but Jeb replied, “You’re working through some serious stuff. If anyone laughs about a 36-hour finish, fuck ’em. They don’t know what we’re going through to get there, but we know.” I took a lot of comfort in these words. The bad voice in my head was filled with shame about my performance, while the good voice pointed out what I was pushing through just to keep moving. OK, true, I would know what I went through, but no one else would appreciate the magnitude of the effort. Hearing Jeb’s proclamation helped me realize that it didn’t matter what anyone else understood about this race. Of course, I would go back and forth on that realization over the next 30 hours, but he planted the seed that I would attempt to nurture.

I wanted to stick with Jeb and Clint, but Tums don’t do shit to relieve severe GI distress, and before long I had to excuse myself and make for the trees (by the way, thank heavens for the number of trees and shrubs on this course. Also, thank heavens for baby wipes. They saved my ass.) I said I’d catch up but knew that was not going to happen. This became a pattern through this section. A runner would chat with me for a bit, but then I’d flee for the trees, or they would simply drop me. It was incredibly humbling and frustrating, and I had to work very hard not to feel completely defeated by being constantly dropped by runners who were hiking.

One man stayed with me for about a mile, and he talked endlessly about all of the badass ultra women he admired. He mentioned how much he loved those films about women who thought their races were over, but they managed to turn things around and had very successful runs (I’m pretty sure he was talking about Billy Yang’s awesome films and Devon Yanko and Sally McRae‘s WS100 comebacks.) I understood that he was trying to give me hope, and I appreciated it. “You can still turn it around,” he offered. He also had a friend who he thought was just ahead of us. “She’s a medic, and I’ll bet she can figure out what’s going on with you. We’ll meet her at the aid station, and we’ll get it figured out.” I thanked him, and soon he, too, dropped me.

Soon after, I heard a voice from behind, “There’s my Wy’east Trail Sister! I caught you at last!” He had seen me in my Wy’east Wolfpack shirt at the start line, and he’d finally caught me. His name was Hugh, and he had trained with Yassine. He asked what was going on, and I explained the several issues that had compounded. Everyone I had spoken with had a theory about the bloated stomach, and Hugh’s was that I was retaining water due to taking too many electrolytes. (Others had suggested I wasn’t getting enough electrolytes.) He asked if I had blood in my urine or BMs; I didn’t. “OK, so kidney failure isn’t a concern.” That’s a relief. I said, “I’m not sure if this is anything serious, but I assume I would know it if I was in real danger.” He replied, “Nothing you described sounds like you’re in any real danger. It doesn’t sound life threatening.” That was a true relief. He paused and became very serious: “You know, if Yassine was here, he’d ask you, ‘How would you feel right now if you quit?'” This took me aback, especially because the bad voice in my head had started floating the idea that I should quit. “I would never forgive myself,” I replied. “Well then,” Hugh said, “keep moving. There’s still plenty of time and plenty of miles for you to kick this thing and turn your race around.” With that, he, too, dropped me, but not before leaving me with this important image of my coach asking me how I would feel about quitting. I’d hear that question again throughout my race.

I rolled into Kanab Creek feeling somewhat hopeful. Jeb and Clint were still there, which surprised me. Maybe I was moving faster than I thought. I asked the volunteers for Pepto or Imodium; “we have Tums,” they replied. No thanks. I refilled water but chose not to add Tailwind to my bladder. This, in hindsight, was a terrible mistake. I’d stopped eating after mile 20 or so. Eating made the pain worse, and it was clear I wouldn’t keep it down anyway. I took Hugh’s assessment as true and assumed I had too many electrolytes; fearing I’d exacerbate the situation, I didn’t take any Endurolytes and didn’t re-up the Tailwind. I was still a little dehydrated, but at least I was able to drink. I knew that I needed to eat, but the adverse reaction was so painful, that I stupidly decided to just go without. This meant I was only getting water. No calories. No electrolytes. I knew better, but it also felt as if I didn’t have any other choice. It was all very un-Ellen-like, but so was this entire race.

Perhaps it was the combination of catching up to Jeb, Clint, Hugh, and the other man who had cheered me up on this past leg, but I left Kanab Creek feeling a bit better. The next section was only 5 miles and mostly downhill, and I optimistically hoped that I could run down into Straight Canyon.

Kanab Creek to Straight Canyon (Mile 36 to Mile 41)

The trail left Kanab Creek and followed along the edge of a cliff. Down below, the iconic hoodoos of Bryce Canyon glowed in the late afternoon light. I may have been miserable in many ways, but I never lost sight of the beauty of this landscape. I understood, throughout my entire experience, that it was a privilege to be there. As Yassine always reminds me, “Our lives are so good, we pay to put ourselves in these situations.” I took in the vista on display, smiling and appreciating this astonishing place. Snaking along the cliff’s edge, the refrain from the Guided By Voices song, “Drag Days,” played on repeat: “They will turn around / They will turn aroun—ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh–ound.” I picked up into a little jog, which morphed into something resembling a run. “This will be the part in my race report when I write about how things turned around in that moment. The sufferfest is over and done with; now my race begins!”

Sharp knives stabbed at my gut, needling me with pain and knocking out my breath. I staggered to a halt. Tried to resume a jog. Knives. I didn’t want to believe this, so I tried again. Daggers. This description isn’t an attempt for the dramatic. This was the reality of my race; this was me fighting it while also trying to reconcile myself to it. Things were decidedly not turning around. “You’re still ahead of the cutoffs,” the good voice said. “That’s all that matters. You can’t run, but hiking has kept you ahead of the cutoffs.” It was true. While my margin shrank a bit at each aid station, I was, at that point, about 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. I was making decent time. “Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress,” the good voice chanted.

A number of runners seemingly rallied on the downhill and tore past me. By this point, I had a pat reply when people asked how I was doing: I’d smile and laugh, “Just guttin’ it out!” I probably said that 100 times on the course. I was learning to manage disappointment, and I tried having a sense of humor about it when talking with others. I was learning to revise my expectations and navigate a feeling of failure. I had plenty of miles ahead of me to work through all of this, and, to use a cliche, it was an emotional roller coaster.

At this point, the front runner came into sight. He looked strong and was gliding along in gazelle-like fashion. I whooped for him as he passed with his pacer, both of them telling me to stay strong. A few minutes later, the second male showed up. He was bent over, looking tired and zombie-like. I said, “He’s not too far ahead of you!” The pacer said, “Did you hear that Matt? Come on, let’s get him!” I didn’t think Matt was going to catch that runner, but he looked like he could use a hopeful word to pull out of that trance. (The results show a Matt in third place, so hopefully that’s him and he pushed through that wall he was up against.)

Since I was so far behind schedule, my meticulous drop bag arrangement was now all off. As a result, I hadn’t reached the battery pack for recharging my watch, and it died about a mile or so from the next aid station. Finally, I reached Straight Canyon, and volunteers and crews cheered as I hiked in. I laughed and shook my head; their applause weren’t exactly warranted. After 22 miles and roughly 7 hours of severe GI distress, I had some Imodium in my drop bag. My fingers weren’t working, so a kind crew member opened the impossible packaging for me. I asked if the aid station had Pepto. They didn’t, but the runner next to me did. I popped two of them in tandem with the Imodium, not caring if this was a bad idea. I grabbed a headlamp and pullover to prepare for the night that would soon fall. I was looking forward to the respite from the heat and vaguely hoped that the cool air would also help me feel better. My stomach was still enormous and the cramping holding on strong, but I managed to choke down a handful of potato chips and sipped some Coke. This would become the one thing I could eat for much of the race. I came in about 1 hour 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff (wish I could remember the exact window, but this is close.) Not wanting to relinquish too much of my lead over the cutoff, I topped off my water and pressed on. As I left, the lead female was departing in the opposite direction.

Straight Canyon to Pink Cliffs (Mile 41 to Mile 46.5)

The next 10.5 miles forced me to swallow another bitter pill. First, the front runners came past on their return, and then the middle packers ran by. It was humiliating and humbling. The bad voice would say, “You should be with them. That’s where you belong.” The good voice didn’t really have much to say, so I decided to ignore the bad voice. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, but never fell.

The trail meandered through the forested canyon and then began the climb up to Pink Cliffs. First, we were on a gravel road, and then veered off onto single track up a steep and rocky climb. Joey had warned me that the section from Straight Canyon to the turn around at Crawford Pass (and back again) was the worst, but I didn’t find it too bad, all things considered. The Pepto and Imodium Cocktail kicked in a couple miles out of Straight Canyon, and eventually my emergency tree dashing routine concluded. I still had a host of other issues, but this was a great problem to be done with. At one point, a fluttering noise caught my attention; I turned to see a magpie in a pine tree. I’ve always loved these birds, so I decided that the magpie was a good omen. I had to believe in something.

The summit of Pink Cliffs is the highest point on the course (~9,400′), and I reached it as the sun was setting. I paused for a moment–the first time I had done so on the course–and watched the sun set. The trail hugged the edge of the cliff, which had a frighteningly steep drop off. The canyons blanketed as far as I could see, with mesas jutting out in all directions along the horizon. I was moved by the beauty of it all, and I felt a sense of excitement at the prospect of running through the night (which I’d done only once before.) The good voice said, “You’re going to finish.”

Not long after that, I made it to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station. There were two young kids taking numbers of incoming runners, and a third came running over and said, with enthusiasm, “We have to make any runners who get here after 10:45 quit! They aren’t allowed to keep going!” This was pretty irritating to hear, coming into the aid station that is supposed to offer you comfort. The zeal with which this kid anticipated ending runners’ races for them was off-putting, but I chalked it up to kids being kids and didn’t let it bother me. I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff (as best as I remember, give or take 15 minutes), so this wasn’t my concern, anyway. I grabbed a handful of potato chips, refilled my water, and carried on.

Pink Cliffs to Crawford Pass (Mile 46.5 to Mile 51.5)

It was about time to put on the pullover and turn on the headlamp as I started the trek to the turnaround at Crawford Pass. This was mostly a descent, and perhaps it was the power of that sunset that put a little spunk in my step, as I power hiked at a faster pace than had been possible for some time. I passed a number of runners making the return, but I no longer allowed this to bother me. I’d give a “hey, hey!” as we passed. Feeling mostly positive, I also started to wonder if there were any runners left behind me. I suspect those who passed me going the opposite direction wondered this as well. They would find out, but I had no way of knowing.

The gravelly road soon became a series of switchbacks, and the entire descent came into view. Pins of lights from headlamps dotted the zagging line down the mountain. Initially, I thought that I simply had to get to the bottom of the road, but I soon noticed beams of light stretching all along the bottom of a cliff, reaching back for what seemed like forever. “Oh god, they go on forever back there. For miles!” the bad voice whined. It deflated me. “Feed the Good Wolf,” the other voice reminded.

Sure enough, at the bottom of the road, the immaculately marked course told me to head off onto a single track trail that wound along the bottom of the mountain. This was a nasty section. Dry draws crossed the trail endlessly. While in different circumstances I could leap down and fly up the other side, my condition was so bad that I had to crawl down into the draw and then drag myself up the other side. There were blow downs and some sharp drops to navigate as well. There were a few creek crossings. There were logs meant to be used as bridges, but I didn’t trust myself to keep my balance across them, so I picked my way across the water, tip-toeing an attempt to keep dry-ish. It was an exhausting stretch.

I always seem to rally when others around me are at a low point. A runner caught me, and he was in incredibly bad shape, losing hope by the second. I tried to keep the conversation positive. He’d veer back into focusing on his pain, and I would redirect his thoughts. This kept my mind off my own physical pain, too. After crossing a particularly gnarly draw, I paused and looked up. The sight was stunning. Stars like I’d never seen carpeted the sky. There seemed to be more points of light than open space. It felt as if the sky was wrapped around us, it was that bright and bold and brilliant and close. The Milky Way traipsed across the scene. I gasped, “Oh! Look at the stars!” He replied, “Oh, yes, wow! You really do find the positive in everything, don’t you?”

“That’s the only choice we have if we’re going to make it.”

For the first time in hours, I dropped a runner. He fell behind, and this was no time to wait for anyone. I was chasing cutoffs. I hope he kept going.

Soon after this, a runner said, “You’re almost there! I’m 20 minutes out. You can make it!” I’m not certain, because it was too dark to tell, but I think it was Joe. Either way, it helped to hear a friendly voice. A little further on, another runner said, “it’s just half a mile!” These words fueled me on. A third runner said, “You’re almost there! And, I’m not just saying that. It’s really less than a quarter mile.”

I could smell the campfire before the Crawford Pass Aid Station came into view. Tempting as was its glow, I headed for the tent, ready to try some food. The race website had mentioned there’d be vegan broth overnight, so I asked the volunteer for some. He said, “We’ve got chicken broth. That ok?” “No, thank you.” I scooped my trusty handful of potato chips, as another person who overheard this said, “I have some baby carrots. Would you like them?” I smiled and thanked him, but I didn’t want to take someone else’s food from them. I munched my chips and chatted briefly with another runner who was clearly struggling. His name was Steve. He had offered some words of encouragement earlier, and now he needed some. All of his friends had dropped, which took away some of his momentum. I’d wanted to leave with him, but needed a few minutes to fill up water and assess my headlamp situation. I had come in around an hour and fifteen or hour and thirty minutes ahead of the cutoff. This meant it was approximately 11:15 p.m. I’d been on course for over 17 hours and had only just now reached the halfway point.

I was using a backup headlamp because my drop bags were out of sync with the race I was having. My next headlamp was about 24 miles away. This was a cheap, battery operated headlamp. I knew the batteries should last me, but the risk made me anxious, especially if I was the last runner on the course. If the batteries ran out, I could be stuck god knows where until daylight. I asked a volunteer, “I know it’s a long shot, but any chance you have extra batteries? Things haven’t gone according to plan, and I’m concerned about the possibility of my batteries dying.” She sprung into action as her partner mumbled, “Every time she does this, she never gets the headlamp back.” She returned and offered me a headlamp, but I wasn’t comfortable taking it (even though I would have mailed it back, dude.) Instead, I asked for the batteries, and left thanking her profusely. This would give me peace of mind heading back into the night.

At long last, I was inbound.

Crawford Pass to Pink Cliffs (Mile 51.5 to Mile 56.5)

I left several runners behind me at Crawford Pass and a few, though not many, were still coming in as I made my way back out. I offered encouragement to everyone I passed. It occurred to me now that a significant amount of runners must have dropped. Having now passed everyone on the course, it was clear that far fewer were out here than who had started. Retracing my steps, the trail didn’t feel quite as treacherous as it did outbound. Perhaps knowing I was heading back gave me a little lift, but the thought then struck me that I had to go back and do again everything I had already done. Of course, the bad voice leapt on that thought and tried to foster it; the good voice jumped in and reminded me that this trail seemed shorter and easier on the return; the rest of the course should be the same. I stopped a couple of times to take in the starry sky, still amazed by its splendor.

Amazingly, I overtook a couple of runners on the climb back up the road. The ascents had become my strong suit on this course; they are typically my weakest element. The switchbacks did feel a bit interminable, but soon enough I was back at the Pink Cliffs Aid Station, about an hour ahead of the cutoff. They had bowls of noodles, and I figured it was time to try something other than chips. The noodles actually tasted pretty good, and I was happy to be eating. It hurt my stomach a bit, but not as badly as earlier. The station captain was surprised by how good of spirits I was in, given how badly I felt. I had a knack for pulling everything together around others, downplaying how awful things were inside. I decided to sit for a minute as I enjoyed my dinner. A pacer sat next to me, irritated that his runner needed a nap. I realized then that I wasn’t tired yet. The 24-hour mark was not far off, and I was remarkably lucid, as the station captain noted. As I headed back out, he said, “Don’t scare no bears out there!” I didn’t let myself ask if there were actually bears out there.

Pink Cliffs to Straight Canyon (Mile 56.5 to Mile 62)

It was a little nerve wracking going back along Pink Cliffs. The wind had really picked up, and the trail traced the edge. There was that tricky descent to navigate as well, and I slid several times on my way down. Reaching the road, I tried to pick up the pace of my hike, but I topped out pretty quickly. Several runners took advantage of the descent to run and make up time. I simply couldn’t. From that height, you could see down into the canyon. The Straight Canyon Aid Station was lit up in flickering Christmas lights. It was an awful tease, though. It gave you the impression that it was so close, but it was still so far away. I heard one runner behind me yowling like a wild animal, then yelling, “Yee-oww! The pain! The pain!” while he laughed maniacally. As we neared the canyon trail, his pacer ran up to me and said, “I’m going to run ahead and get his stuff set up at the aid station. What do you need? Just tell me, and I’ll have it ready for you?” I couldn’t believe his kindness. I thanked him and said I was all set. As he and his yowling runner passed me, he yelled back, “This is runnable here! You can make up time going downhill!” I laughed and replied, “It hurts worse on the downhill, but I’ll make it! Thanks!”

The cutoff at Straight Canyon was 4:20 a.m. I arrived around 3:30, if not a little after. My margin for error was quickly shrinking. The temperature had dropped significantly, and the wind was fierce. I had another shirt in my drop bag, which I put on over the pullover. I was also wearing another shirt underneath, plus arm sleeves. I had gloves, a hat, and wrapped my buff around my ears. Still, I was shivering. I asked about vegan broth, but they only had chicken. I asked for tea. I needed something to warm me up. I sat down with my tea, and another runner gave me a sleeping bag to wrap up in. I feared I might never come out from under it, but I took the risk. The warmth of the tea and sleeping bag were comforting. Another runner laid down on the cot (maybe it was Steve?) and said to me and a volunteer, “I think I have to quit.” He was stunned, almost shell shocked as he said it. “I’ve never quit before.” The volunteer said, “We got word that almost half the field had dropped by 3:00 p.m. yesterday. It’s just a bad year.” All of this talk of quitting was fueling the bad voice in my head. “You have every reason to quit. You are in incredible pain; you’ve barely eaten. In a few hours, it will be blazing hot, and you will dehydrate. You’re moving slower and the cutoffs are getting more narrow. There’s no shame in quitting. You did your best, but you’re done.” The bad voice was starting to sound like the reasonable voice, but I thought of everyone who was sending me good thoughts from afar. I couldn’t let them down.

Yassine asked, “How would you feel right now if you quit?”

“I’d be miserable.”

I tossed off the sleeping bag and blurted out, “I’ve gotta go! I’ve gotta try!” The volunteer and runner who had just resigned himself to quitting agreed in unison, “Yes, you have to try!”

I stood up, and then nearly collapsed. A violent, burning sensation surged through both feet. I took a step, and pain shot through them again. I fell back into the chair, unsure what had happened. I dared not take off my shoes, out of fear I would never get them back on. It took a moment for me to process what had happened: I had developed enormous blisters on the bottoms of my toes on both feet; the right foot was in far worse shape than the left, but both were pretty bad. I had been so focused on the pain in my gut and stomach, that I hadn’t noticed the blisters on my feet. It’s incredible to think that, but it’s the only explanation as to why I hadn’t noticed until now. I hobbled over to the fire, unsure what to do. The fire had apparently attracted other runners who had quit and were waiting for a lift back to Ruby’s. The guy next to me was looking past the fire into space. He wore a face of unwelcome resignation, and his eyes were glassy. He was coming to terms with not finishing the race. The tone was similar for everyone around the fire, and the decision to quit was infectious. I lingered by the fire’s seductive glow.

“The fire feels nice. It’s cold. You’re in no shape to finish, and you won’t make the next cutoff anyway.”

The good voice knew what was up and pointed out what I was doing: “You’re letting the clock run out. You’re setting it up so that you can’t make the next cutoff. Can you live with that?”

I was starting to think that I could.

I staggered over to the water table, trying to decide what to do. Was I really going to quit? I was at mile 62. I’d made it this far, could I really live with quitting now? I didn’t want to quit, but I wasn’t confident that I could make the next cutoff, and now with my feet wrecked, I’d be even slower. I had less time to cover about the same distance I had just covered.

“Let’s go! We go now!”

I looked up from my stupor.

“C’mon, let’s go!”

A runner was filling up his water bottles, urgently and sternly instructing me to go.

“I can’t make the cutoff. I won’t make it. I can’t run”

“We go now!”

There wasn’t any arguing with him, so I went.

Straight Canyon to Kanab Creek (Mile 62 to 67)

As we marched up the road out of Straight Canyon, my new trail buddy periodically turned around and yelled something in Spanish back in the direction of the aid station. I heard a faint reply, and assumed it was another runner. This continued for a few minutes, until the other runner caught us. Shortly after, I heard a voice from behind, “Do you want my coat?” I assumed he was talking to the other runner, so I didn’t reply. “You look cold. Do you want my coat?” “Me?” “Yeah. You’re all hunched up and shivering.” “Oh, thanks, but I can’t take your coat.” “I don’t even want it on. I was going to take it off and carry it, so you may as well wear it.”

And that’s how I met Izzy. He was a great liar, and one of the kindest people I have ever met.

Realizing that arguing with him wasn’t an option either, I accepted his kind offer. I was freezing, and his coat warmed me immediately. It was no surprise to learn that Izzy was the son of the insistent runner, Juan. Juan said, “You can’t quit. You are too young,  and I am too old to quit.” He laughed then pulled ahead of us a bit, and Izzy stayed with me. He was there to pace and mule for his father, and it’s clear he brought the morale as well. I’ve never met someone so generous. Izzy was a college student who spent weekends pacing his dad at ultras around Utah. He was so good natured, you couldn’t help but feel happy around him. He kept telling me how good I was doing, encouraging me to keep going. Sometimes Juan would slow down, and we’d move ahead. Sometimes he would take the lead, and we’d follow. We stuck together, though, and Izzy made conversation and kept my spirits up. I was in such good hands, and my body responded by giving more than I thought possible. Izzy is studying to become a pediatric physical therapist; he will be incredible with those kids, as he was an expert at motivating and encouraging us to push ourselves in a way that felt positive and supportive. His energy inspired me to dig deep, and it turned my mindset around, leaving the depths of despair behind at Straight Canyon.

We reached Kanab Creek Aid Station at 5:30 a.m. Half an hour ahead of the cutoff.

We quickly replenished water. I could tell that my lips were badly chapped, so I asked the volunteers for chapstick. One loaned me hers; next time, I will carry the nominal extra weight. I was able to eat an orange slice here, although the tart juice stung my lips. With no time to lose, we made a speedy departure as the light of early dawn spread across the sky.

Kanab Creek to Blubber Creek (Mile 67 to Mile 75)

This section rode along the edge of a cliff, the Bryce hoodoos in battalions below. The sun rose as we steadily tramped toward Blubber Creek. While I was renewed by Juan and Izzy’s companionship, and by having made the cutoff, I could also tell my body was growing tired. A few handfuls of potato chips and some noodles over a 19 hour period wasn’t going to cut it in terms of nutrition. On a sandy climb, I tripped on a rock, falling and busting my cheek on another rock and bruising my hand on yet another. In cartoons people see stars, but that must be based in real life experience, because stars burst across my vision at impact. I was mostly embarrassed but also thought, “certainly this can’t cause a concussion, right?” Izzy was there immediately to lift me up. “I’m ok, I’m ok.” It was clear that I was struggling. Juan stopped, and I said, “You guys have to drop me now. You got me out of Straight Canyon, and I’ll be forever grateful for that, but I’m slowing you down. You have to drop me.” “No!” Juan replied, “We finish together.” “I promise you, I will finish. I promise I won’t quit. But you have to leave me now.”

Juan saw there was no arguing with me. He had rallied and could run, and I wanted him to make the cutoffs. I gave Izzy his coat and thanked him for everything. As he pulled ahead, he called out, “Ellen, you ok?” I would reply, “Hey Izzy! I’m good!” He continued this every 30 seconds or so, until finally his voice dissolved in the distance.

I enjoyed the view of the hoodoos below and appreciated the cool morning. It was in that sweet spot between being too cold and too hot, and I knew that wouldn’t last long. A couple miles later, I overtook Izzy. He was walking slowly, but still smiling. “Ellen! You’re doing great!” “Are you ok?” “My knee’s bothering me, and Juan could run, so I told him to go. You go ahead, too, Ellen. You’re going to make it!” Pushing forward, I promised, “I won’t quit, Izzy. I promise you, I’ll finish.” That was the last I saw of him. It’s the poignant part of ultra running. Sometimes you encounter people who completely turn your race around, and often you don’t even catch their name, much less ever see them again. You never forget what they give you, though. While I would like to think that I would have eventually left Straight Canyon on my own and attempted to make the next cutoff, I honestly don’t know if that’s how it would have unfolded if Juan hadn’t come along and dragged my ass out of there. If Izzy hadn’t been there to encourage me along the way, I might not have had the strength to beat the buzzer.

Running still wasn’t an option, but I moved with a sense of urgency. Along the way, I had my first hallucination. I saw, as clearly as anything, a composting toilet tent off the side of the trail. “I’m here! That’s the aid station!” It was a tree stump. It was a wild experience, because it was absolutely convincing. Shortly thereafter, I saw the aid station tent. Nope, more trees. I then caught a pacer and runner, and we leap frogged a bit, me taking them on the climbs and them passing me on the descents. We came in to Blubber Creek 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I asked, “Did we have until 9:00 to get here, or until 9:00 to leave here?” The volunteers said, “You have until 9:00 to leave here.” I didn’t need much time, just enough to refill my water. I was also able to eat a banana, which helped. I had almost 4 hours to cover 9 miles. On a normal day, I could easily run a marathon in that time. I turned to the runner and pacer and said, “We’re going to make it!” That thought fueled me more than any banana, and I started off as fast as my hiking pace would carry me. Tears formed in my eyes as I chanted, “You’re gonna make it! You’re gonna make it!”

Blubber Creek to Proctor (Mile 75 to Mile 84)

In my memory, the trip from Proctor to Blubber Creek was all climb, so I had it in my head that the return would be all downhill. The sun hadn’t quite crested the mountains, so it wasn’t too incredibly hot as I began. While there was some initial descent, it soon turned to climb. There’d be a short descent, but the climb that followed never seemed proportional. While I was still faster on the ascents, they still demanded a lot of energy. I hazarded a bite of an energy ball, but it tasted like black licorice. A granola bar was more palatable and gave me a little boost. As I came around a bend, I spooked two turkey vultures who swooped out of their perch with a loud swoosh. “You like turkey vultures,” the good voice reminded me. “They remind you of the Nature Park at DePauw. They glide on thermals for fun. They are not a bad omen. They are not here to suggest that you are road kill.”

Soon thereafter, the front runner of the 50 miler came flying past. He ran up the climb on those fresh, fleet legs like a damned antelope. I smiled all the same and whooped as he sped past. The next men were quite a ways behind him, but they all foreshadowed the throng of 50-milers who would be zooming past me from here out.

Next came the dodgy descent. It had been a tough climb, and it was even trickier coming down. I took a few bad steps and was reduced to clumsily crawling down some sections that I would usually bound down like a deer. A new problem emerged on this section: within minutes of drinking water, I would have to pee. In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank frequently. But just as soon as I’d gulped, I’d have to squat. I didn’t overthink it at the time; it was more of a nuisance than anything. The temps were rising now, too, and I realized that I still wasn’t sweating. Remembering the creek at the bottom of the hill, I looked forward to cooling off and pushed to get there. Coming down a steep slope, I saw a red backpack up ahead. I thought it must belong to a hiker who had set it down and stepped off the trail. As I got closer, I realized it was another hallucination. The red backpack was a tree stump.

It took much longer to reach the creek than I expected, but finally hearing its babble gave me a lift. I drenched my hat, head, Kool Tie, and sun sleeves. It was refreshing and exactly what I needed in that moment. Reluctantly, I pressed onward. The stream came close to the trail a little ways down. My sun sleeves had already dried, as had my Kool Tie. I’d gone 1/4 of a mile, at most. That’s how hot and dry it was. I detoured over to the stream and soaked everything once again. From there, it was out into the exposed sandy climb, the sun relentless in its glare. My sun sleeves dried out quickly. Since I was dehydrated, I wasn’t sweating; thus, the sun sleeves weren’t functioning as intended. They made me even hotter, but I figured that was better than exposing my arms to the intense sun.

This exposed section and its awful climb took a lot out of me. It was here, too, that a nagging sensation in my ankle started to register. I didn’t quite acknowledge it, but the thought that something was wrong with my ankle crept forward in my thoughts. They say not to do “ultra math,” but I couldn’t help but try to figure out how many miles I had to go until Proctor and how much time I had left to cover the distance. If my math was correct, then I had about 5 miles to go, and maybe 2 hours to do so. I was already low on water but also terribly thirsty. “You can’t make it,” one voice said. “It doesn’t look good,” said the other. Even the good voice was losing hope.

4 miles to go, and I was out of water. I was nearly out of time, too. I was a little confused about pace and distance, though, so I carried on as if I could realistically make the cutoff. My body knew what was going on before my brain would acknowledge it; in an attempt to expel the emotion welling inside, my body tried to cry. I held back tears and held onto hope that I could do it. One minute my math added up and I could make it; the next, it was impossible, even at a faster pace. Each 50-miler who passed me called the tears forward, and I worked hard to suppress them. One runner stopped and said, “Oh, were you the first female?” He thought I’d lost first place in the 50 mile race. “No. I’m a 100-miler, and I’m realizing that I might not make the cutoff.” Hearing my voice say this out loud was unbearable. I had to fight. I pushed, telling myself that if I didn’t make the cutoff, I would plead with the volunteers to let me finish. I didn’t care about an official finish. I just needed to go the distance. I needed not to quit. I couldn’t go 84 miles, most of it in excruciating pain, just to be pulled so close to the finish. As the cutoff slipped further from my grasp, my resolve went with it. With about 3 miles to go, the cutoff elapsed.

I looked down and saw that my ankle had blown up and was dark red from the swelling; it throbbed. I was hobbling. The cramps and bloated stomach were as bad as ever. The blisters on my feet were screaming. The temperature was sneaking up into the 90s. I was severely dehydrated. My lips were cracked and starting to bleed. Watching the cutoff disappear, I lost any drive that remained. I’d hauled myself over 80+ miles, only to be pulled from the course a smoldering wreck. I was out of water and still had to hike 3 miles just to be pulled from the course. Failure enveloped me.

A 50-miler ran past, then stopped and backtracked. “You ok? You need anything?” “I’m ok,” I said, my voice shaky. “You need some water?” “No, thanks.” I wasn’t going to take anyone’s water; they would need it. “I’m a 100-miler and the cutoff just passed. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t make it. They’ll pull me off the course.” Without hesitation, he lunged forward and tightly embraced me. “It’s ok; everything happens for a reason,” he whispered in my ear. With that, a tremendous sob burst from the depths of my being. I cried a few breaths, and he held me tighter. Then, I composed myself, and said, “I’ll be ok. I’m ok. Thank you.” He offered to walk in to the aid station with me, but I told him to go, I would be fine, and offered my sincerest thanks. As he spun around to leave, I saw a bib pinned to his back that said “Legally Blind.” I’m not exactly sure why that made such an impact on me, but I told myself, “Ellen, you are not legally blind. Your life is so good, you paid to put yourself in this position. Being here is a privilege. Get over yourself, right now.”

Those were a long 3 miles, and I experienced a wave of emotions. More than anything, I started thinking about the texts I would now have to send to the two people who had prepared me for this race: Yassine and Rich. I would have to tell them that I didn’t make it. There was something about having to tell them this that stung more than not being able to finish. I respected these runners, my coach and my running buddy. I wanted to show them that my hard work had paid off. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I couldn’t imagine typing out a text that said, “I didn’t make it.” This thought tormented me for three long miles. Inside, I knew that Yassine would say, “You had every reason to quit much earlier; it’s ok. There will be another race;” Rich would say, “Don’t be an idiot; no death marches.” Nevertheless, I couldn’t bear the thought of telling them I couldn’t do it. Then there were the family and friends who had been so excited for me. Those messages would suck, too, but not quite as sharply as the one sent to my running mentors.

A man passed me along a ridge and said, “Just about 2 and a half miles to go!” He thought this was a good thing, but I couldn’t believe it was still that far to Proctor. About a mile out from the aid station, a couple stopped to check on me. I must have looked pretty rough, hobbling in. I finally accepted a little water, since they had plenty between the two of them. They encouraged me to keep going and said, “we’ll see you there!” I took that last mile to compose myself and prepare mentally for the end. I didn’t want to cry as they pulled me off the course.

People clapped as I made the last steep climb into Proctor, while I shook my head and gave a small smile. As I passed one man, he spun around and said, “Hey, 100-miler? The vegan?” “Yes?” “I saw you at Crawford Pass. I offered you baby carrots. You’re doing great! You’re going to finish!” “I missed the cutoff. They’re going to pull me.” It took everything in me not to cry. He walked over and said, “Just keep going. They won’t stop you. Go take a break. Hydrate, eat, and get some rest. Look, I have a runner coming in. He’s about 30 minutes behind you. When he gets here, you’re going to leave with him and his pacer. You’ll finish together.” “They won’t pull me?” “No, just keep going. But for now, go rest.” He walked me to the tent, filled my water bottles, and left me to recuperate. The volunteers were so busy doing damage control on the 50 milers and 50k runners, that no one seemed concerned about pulling me. I was going to finish.

The crew chief, Rick, checked on me, then waited for his runner. I sat awkwardly with other runners on something that passed for a cot. It was great to relax and chat with runners. My sense of humor returned, and I tried to lift up others who were blasted after that last leg. I ate bananas and drank water and a little Coke. My ankle was blown up even further, so I put ice in my sock in a feeble attempt to reduce the swelling. Knowing that I would be leaving there on my own feet and not in a quitter’s van gave me a boost. I saw a tube of what appeared to be chapstick, and I smeared it all over my lips in relief. (Later, in the hotel mirror, I would be startled by the clown face staring back at me. I realized then that I had put on a deep magenta lip gloss, and I had worn those cartoonish lips for the last 18 miles of the race.) I also took some Endurolytes. My stomach was still bloated, but I knew at this point it couldn’t be a result of too many electrolytes. Rick’s runner came in about 60 minutes after me. He looked like death warmed over. His crew went to work on restoring him to life. He hadn’t made the cutoffs for miles, but had somehow managed to make it through the gatekeepers. He spent the next hour recovering, and man did that guy rally. Before we left, I thanked Rick, choked up: “It’s really important to me to finish my first 100. Thanks for helping me do that.” “That’s what this sport is all about.” I hugged him, and then we were off.

Proctor to Thunder Mountain (Mile 84 to Mile 92.5)

The runner, like me, had been reduced to a power hike, and he had trouble on the downhills. Given his condition coming in to Proctor, I assumed that I would have no trouble keeping up with him. This soon proved to be a wrong assumption. I struggled to keep pace with him, and liquids were still cruising through me at lightning speed, requiring frequent stops behind trees. This section was, not surprisingly, hot and exposed. Many of the 50 milers were slowing down, zapped by the course and the sun in equal measure. The runner and his pacer made conversation; occasionally the pacer would include me, but I mostly hung back and listened. I already felt like a burden and tried to remain quiet. At every creek, even if it was a glorified trickle, we stopped to soak our hats, Kool ties, and sun sleeves. I had stuffed my sports bra with ice at Proctor, but the heat grilled us all the same. Reaching a larger creek, we stopped and soaked ourselves for a few minutes. One woman was moaning, and I said, “You got this. We’re almost there.” Everyone was hurting.

About 1.5 miles away from Thunder Mountain, I told the runner and his pacer not to worry about dropping me. I thanked them for getting me that far, but I was struggling to keep up and didn’t want them waiting on my account. They slowly pulled away.

I wasn’t too far behind, though, when I arrived at Thunder Mountain. I laughed when I thought about the contents of my drop bag there: two hand helds. In the fantasy version of events, I would zoom into this final aid station, swap out my pack for two light handhelds, and then whisk away to the finish. Pulling in to Thunder Mountain, a volunteer greeted me by saying, “You’re not leaving until you hydrate, and you’re taking as much water as you can carry. There are medics on the course giving I.V.s and we can’t have anyone else collapsing out there. Also, this last section isn’t 7.5 miles. It’s 9. They changed the course and didn’t update the website. We just found out.”

I wanted to punch something.

While an extra 1.5 miles doesn’t seem like much, especially in the grand scheme of a 100-miler, it’s soul crushing news when you’ve been fighting the desire to quit and have been going for nearly 37 hours. Another volunteer said, “Yeah, so you’re running a 101.5 miler.” To which I replied, “Don’t forget that .5!” We all laughed, because what else could you do?

Food was pretty scarce here. I rummaged some potato chip crumbs and a tortilla. The volunteer wanted to make me a quesadilla, but I declined and asked for a plain tortilla, which he thought was weird. “Carbs,” I offered. He said, “Man, you’re gonna finish a 100-miler. That’s rad! You’re doing awesome! You don’t even seem tired!” This guy was like The Dude’s more energetic brother. He was really impressed that we were still going. The 50-milers chimed in, too. They were all feeling pretty awful, so, once again, that helped me perk up. I made light of how I felt and joked around while I hydrated. The runner and his pacer were ready to go before me; I thanked them again, and the pacer said, “We’ll see you at the finish line.” “Oh, don’t wait for me.” “We will be there at the finish line,” she said firmly. A few minutes later, I followed.

Thunder Mountain to the Finish Line (Mile 92.5 to Mile 101.5)

The serious climbing was front-loaded on this final leg. The sun was starting to set, so the heat would soon abate. I passed a guy with a dog waiting on a rock for his wife. I asked if I could get some puppy power, and the dog came over to give me some love. The 50-milers were passing me still, but even that steady stream soon slowed. Ahead, I could see the medics. They had runners sitting in the shade, I.V.s on their arms. I straightened up, smiled, and put my best face forward. I didn’t want them to pull me. “How are you feeling?” “I’m good!!!” It was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, but they let me pass.

The sun was sinking over the hoodoos, and as I crested a climb, I took a moment to absorb it. “You’ve seen two sunrises and two sunsets,” I thought. There was something kind of incredible about that. The magic hour light played on the bright colors of the hoodoos, and I breathed in the beauty of this moment, savoring that sunset. I passed a young woman managing some blisters, and then she caught me up. We chatted on the next climb, but she was able to push past her pain and soon dropped me. In the twilight, I heard a man moaning out loud. I stopped to put on my headlamp and called out “You ok?” No answer. More moaning. “You ok?” Nothing. I slowed until he was near me, and asked again. He was in a lot of pain and unsure if he should have dropped his wife. He figured she quit and was now worried about him. We talked for about a mile. He was worried about making his cutoff, so I encouraged him to drop me. He seemed reluctant, but I said I couldn’t run, and he could. He had to go. With that, I was alone.

It occurred to me at this point that people were probably worried about me, namely my Mom and Yassine. I’d been in the wilderness of Utah for nearly two days and had no cell service. There was no way to reach them, so I had to tell myself that they wouldn’t worry too much. I grew anxious all the same; I would be finishing over twelve hours later than the “realistic goal” of a sub-30. No one would have anticipated the race I was actually experiencing.

I had swapped out my cheapy headlamp for a fancy one, but this proved a bad move. The lamp caught the dust, making it impossible to see, so I had to carry it in my hand. This eventually made my arm ache. One voice said, “Your left arms hurts. Doesn’t that mean you’re going to have a heart attack?” The other voice said, “It aches from holding the headlamp, you idiot.” I chose to believe that voice.

The final 4-5 miles also required some serious mantra chanting. I had entered a forest and saw no other runners, no headlamps in the distance in either direction. Occasionally, I heard a sound that seemed like it was either a frog or a bear. Maybe there wasn’t a sound at all, but I tried not to think about whatever it was. I realized that I was most likely the last person on the course. The sweepers were out there somewhere, so at least they hadn’t caught me yet.

“Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress. Dig deep, like Dexter.” The third mantra came from my admiration for the grit my cat Dexter had shown in his year of receiving cancer treatment. He went through so much, but never gave any indication that he suffered. He was tough as nails, and I wanted to emulate that. I chanted on.

My morale was getting low, though. I took Corona’s advice and turned to music. I started to hum the Guided by Voices song, “Don’t Stop Now.” I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t look at my watch until I hit the gravel road. I knew that if I looked too soon, I’d have more mileage to go than I thought, and that would deflate me. It became a game, a bet I made with myself to see how mentally strong I was. Something to occupy my mind. An attempt at “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” didn’t last past the first bottle. I went back to chanting mantras. I could feel myself slipping toward despair, so I added, “You got this, girl, you got this” to my repertoire. The fluids were still going straight through me, and I was stopping shortly after every drink. (A friend later suggested this was due to low sodium levels.)

“Maybe Rick will come out on the trail to meet me and walk me in. His runner is probably finished, so he might come out to help me finish.” Thus hoped the bad voice.

“Get it together. You don’t need someone to come get you,” scolded the good voice. “If you ever run Barkley, do you think Laz is going to meet you on the trail to walk you in?”

“You could just lay down on the trail. The sweepers will find you and take care of you.”

“Do you really want to curl up in a ball and let the sweepers find you like that, giving up when you’re so close?”

“Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress. Dig deep like Dexter. You got this, girl, you got this.”

I scanned below for any signs of humans, but all I could see was a stream of tiny car headlights on a faraway mountain. I told myself that around the next bend, I would find the road, but all I found was another bend, and it always led up.

F-bombs competed with my mantras. My body tried to release its emotion through tears, but another side of me wouldn’t allow it. It was the strangest sensation, trying to cry and not being able to. Those last three miles nearly broke me, and, in the end, I’m glad no one was there to witness this embarrassing fit of despair.

At last, I reached the road. There were three ambulances parked there, all full with runners hooked to various devices. The medics seemed surprised to see me. “Where’s the finish line?” “Just down the road, about a mile or so.” One eternal mile. A medic joked that he could drive me down, but I declined. “No thanks; I have to finish this on my own.”

I would have thought that I would be overcome with joy, get a final wind, and be able to run that last mile. Perhaps fittingly, I couldn’t do it. I’d hiked about 80 miles of the course; no sense in pretending otherwise at the finish. The ambulances drove past, kicking up all sorts of dust to choke me, ironically rubbing salt in the wound. Even when the finish line came into sight, I didn’t experience a wave of relief. I just wanted to be finished.

Volunteers were taking down the finish line arch, and they seemed surprised to see me. The 50-miler cutoff had passed about an hour ago, so they probably hadn’t expected anyone else. Everyone stopped what they were doing and started clapping an cheering as I hobbled in. A woman rushed up to me as I crossed the finish line, and pulled me into a warm embrace. I started to cry. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but I had to finish. I had to know I could do it.” They were all excited and congratulated me. Another woman said, “I’ll go get you a buckle. There are even some pink ones left!” “It’s ok, I didn’t make the cutoff. I don’t need a buckle.” The woman who had hugged me said, “No, you earned it.” More women came over to hug and congratulate me, and then one handed me my buckle.  It was a dusty rose, like the color of the hoodoos, and it had some flora that were gathered on the course and pressed into the buckle. While I didn’t care about a finishing time, and I didn’t do this for a buckle, I must admit, it was quite beautiful to hold. “Your friends from Texas just left,” a volunteer explained. “They wanted to wait for you to finish, but they had to go. They were sorry not to be here.” This, of course, was Rick, his runner, and the pacer. They really had waited for me. I was so touched by that.

Another thought had troubled me on this last leg. I’d been awake for nearly 48 hours, and I’d been moving for nearly 42 of those hours. Even though I was still very lucid, driving the 30 miles back to Panguitch seemed like a bad idea. I expressed this concern, and two race organizers, Brad and Laura, assured me that they would get me back to the hotel. I piled into a van with a group of 50-milers who must have finished not long before me and relaxed my mind and body for the first time in over 42 hours.

post race shoes

Post-race shoes and socks. The shoes started with maybe 30 miles on them; the socks were brand new. Compare to the pre-race photo above.

All told, I ran roughly 20 miles and hiked roughly 80, climbed and descended 18,565 feet. It took 41 hours and 53 minutes. I earned the distinction of DFL: Dead. Fucking. Last.

I’m left with mixed feelings about the experience. On the one hand, it’s still frustrating to have trained so hard and then have things out of my control blow all of that to pieces. It’s humbling and embarrassing. There’s a part of me that is ashamed of being reduced to a crawl along the course. I never imagined finishing a race DFL. In this particular case, though, the DFL was preferable to a DNF. On the other hand, though, it wasn’t a complete disaster, much as it may seem that way. I learned a lot about myself, and these lessons will continue to shape me into a better runner, and a better person. Part of me feels proud for gutting it out and finishing. I had plenty of good reasons to quit, but I didn’t. About half of the starters quit, so I learned that I have some mental toughness to draw upon. Being in motion for 42 hours also gave me some confidence about running Big’s Backyard Ultra this fall; if I could keep going in that much pain for that long, just think what’s possible for me under better conditions. I had to confront failure and disappointment; they were my companions for hours upon hours. It’s good for me to confront those fears and learn to manage them. I learned that to finish this race, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers. I had to be open to that kindness and learn to receive it. I didn’t have to do everything on my own. There’s no shame in asking for and accepting help. I often close myself off from others and prefer to be alone and to reach goals on my own. This experience challenged me to let others in and be a little less fearful of asking. Sometimes, you have to let the giver give. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that the ultra community gives, unconditionally. At a time when I’ve felt as if I’m floundering around in life, it’s a comfort to reach this realization.

It wasn’t just the voices in my head that guided me to the finish line; it was the voices of the family, friends, and strangers who gave something of themselves that carried me along.

Buckle.jpg

A hard earned buckle.

 

42: A Bob Graham Round Recce Report

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.” –Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My friend Jane introduced me to the Bob Graham Round over lunch this past January. An outdoor adventurer and lover of the Lake District, she of course knew of this under-the-radar fell running challenge in northwest England. As she described the traverse through the ruggedly sublime English mountains, she had my attention, and the BGR captured my imagination. She added that I should read up on Nicky Spinks, an incredible woman who has set multiple records, including being the second person (and first female) to complete two rounds in under 48 hours. And thus opened the rabbit hole.

Being me, I read everything I could find about the BGR, Nicky Spinks, and the other fell runners who have tested themselves in this gorgeous but challenging landscape. The Lake District trend of seeing how many peaks one could summit in 24 hours began in earnest during the Victorian period, and Bob Graham set the record in 1932 with his 42 summits. He was aged 42 at the time, so thus the number of peaks (had he been successful in his attempt the year prior, then a BGR would be 41 peaks.) In years since, others have attempted to complete a Bob Graham Round in under 24 hours. Just over 2,000 runners have done so, with a success rate of 1 in 3. There is no trail or marked course. The general parameters include starting at the Moot Hall in Keswick, and runners have the choice of going clockwise or anti-clockwise (most choose clockwise.) You must summit the specified peaks, although the approach and order is somewhat flexible in some places. To gain entry into the official BGR Club, you must have someone with you to verify you reached each summit and to record the time. The route ends back at Moot Hall, after 42 summits, 66 miles, 27,000 feet of vertical climb and descent, all in less than 24 hours.

The underground status of the Bob Graham Round attracted me. It’s not well known outside of the fell running community, and they propose to keep it that way (there’s particular concern about environmental damage to the landscape should too many runners attempt it.) There is something Barkley-esque about it, with its unforgiving weather, unrelenting climbs, and secret society. I knew that I had to do this for myself.

With a conference in London this June, I had the opportunity to extend my stay for a few days of vacation. There was no question what I would do with those days: I made a beeline for the Lake District. As the pastoral, sheep-dotted countryside gave way to rolling hills, and then jagged mountains, my excitement went through the roof. I kept gasping and saying out loud, “Get me out there!” Speeding a bit dangerously through the narrowly winding streets of Windermere and Grasmere–beautiful and historic landmarks that most tourists set as their destinations–I pressed on to Keswick, the heart of Bob Graham country, needing to lace up and get up into those fells. After a week of feeling a bit blah, those mountains lit a spark and had me brimming with anticipation. I arrived much later than hoped, so my options seemed a bit limited. I purchased a map at the hostel and asked the host for route suggestions. He recommended Cat Bells as having the best view and also suggested a run around the lake as another option, which would be about 10 miles. I ditched my luggage, laced up, and was off.

A run around the lake, named Derwent Water, seemed like a good option, since it was already 5:30 p.m. Not typically one to take photos, I couldn’t help myself and stopped several times. The contrast between the calm, clear water and the fells that rose abruptly from the shore was incredibly striking. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, and I felt light and easy on my feet. The preceding week, running in London, I’d felt tired and sluggish. Granted, I was less than two weeks out from a 100-miler and still recovering, but my city runs had felt lacking. Now, on the trail and moving through such a captivating landscape, there was a new spring in my step, and I felt like I could run all night. I ran through sheep folds and along rocky shoreline, over rooty and rocky technical trail and up steep, sandy banks, as the imposing peak of Skiddaw loomed in the backdrop.

About three quarters of the way around Derwent Water, I saw a sign post for Cat Bells (sign posts are rare, I learned.) The hostel host had said it was his favorite climb, and it was only a mile to the summit, so up I went. Along the way, I passed another runner, who looked equally eager to make the ascent. I briefly considered slowing down to chat, but my feet felt so good that I zipped up the mountain. Though steep in places, it’s not a terribly difficult climb, although the slick, loose rock made the footing a bit tricky. Photos and words will fail to do justice to the view from Cat Bells. It hovers over Derwent Water while also giving a view up and down the valley as the fells unfold before you. Keswick is a picturesque scattering of bright white buildings, and sail boats skimmed across the water. A ridge line opened to the south, and a higher peak beckoned. I couldn’t resist. I had a headlamp with me, so if night fell before I returned, all would not be lost. I zoomed down the back side of Cat Bells and began the climb to Hause Gate. This was more of a scramble, and I made a bad decision on my route choice, going up a narrow path with sharp angles and a steep drop off. Vertigo set in, and I froze for a moment, paralyzed by my fear of heights. It took some mental strength to talk myself into going forward, and after that, I was more patient in considering my approach and choosing the best line up.

The summit offered yet another stunning perspective, and I could see deeper into the mountains to the south and west. I was so moved, that I even took a very rare selfie. I lingered to take in the view, and the runner I had passed earlier caught up to me. He asked, “Are you training for something in particular?” To which I replied, “I’m always training for something!’ We chatted informally, but when I mentioned that I was here on a Bob Graham Round pilgrimage, everything changed. He began pointing out the peaks to me, focusing on the final 3 summits in Leg 5 and then tracing the route down past a farm and onto the road for the final sprint back into Keswick. He had crewed and paced runners on several attempts and knew the course well. We could have discussed it for hours, but it was getting cold and the sun was setting, so we made our way down the mountain. It was exhilarating to run down the slope, occasionally sliding on the slick rock but not worrying enough to slow down. When I hit the lake trail, I opened things up and tore into the forest. When I reached the road into Keswick, I backtracked, thinking I had missed the trail. I asked some locals, and they gave me directions into town on the road. One said, “It’s a 20 minute walk,” while the other added, after sizing me up, “so you’ll be there in five.” I laughed and sped off, with thoughts of a Bob Graham Round dancing in my head. Out on the road, I kicked things up a notch, imagining I was coming in for the final miles of my BGR. As I crossed the bridge and came into Keswick, I had no idea where the town square and Moot Hall were located, but something instinctual must have guided me there. I came tearing into the pedestrian zone and saw Moot Hall before me. With blinders on, I failed to notice the tourists who were probably staring at the odd sight of a woman flying into the square, legs covered in mud and blood (true Ellen fashion), with a stupid grin on her face. I touched Moot Hall and beamed. I knew in that instant that I would follow through and one day touch that wall again after completing my Bob Graham Round.

That night, I could scarcely sleep, and when I finally nodded off, it was with a tremendous grin and a sense of joy.

Not having slept well for a week (and the snoring French girl in the next bunk making it yet more difficult) I decided to sleep in a bit the next morning. Sipping coffee in the hostel cafe, I poured over the map making a plan for the day. Originally, I intended to try the Skiddaw Skyline Challenge: 7 summits, 15 miles, and 6500 feet of gain. This was a challenge set forth by another local hostel, and you received a free pint at their bar for completing it in under 7 hours. I’d been in contact with the hostel host about it and had planned to make a go of getting on their leader board. The runner from the day before saw me and said hello and asked about my plan. When I mentioned the Skyline Challenge, he said, “Well, you could run Leg 1 of Bob Graham instead.” The Skyline covered the three peaks of Leg 1, so I had thought I’d get a little taste of the BGR, but it hadn’t occurred to me to just focus on the BG route. The runner said he wanted to do it but his knee was hurting and he couldn’t run, but he was considering making a bad decision and going for it anyway. I replied, “If you decide to make a bad decision and want company, let me know. I don’t mind hiking instead of running.” He went off to have his breakfast, and I wasn’t surprised when, a few minutes later, he returned to say, “Let’s go for it.” I raced upstairs to grab my pack and shoes, thrilled to have the opportunity to go over the route, especially with someone who knew it well and could offer insights along the way.

As we left the hostel, we finally had a formal introduction. My new BGR mentor was named Pete. He competed in orienteering races and had just completed a mountain marathon event over the weekend (which is a type of orienteering event that spans two days.) He knew Leg 1 quite well, from pacing other runners and from relay events as well as his own recce runs. He’d done the full course in bits and pieces over the years, but he’d never made his own attempt. Still, he was very knowledgeable about the course and was clearly as obsessed with the BGR as me. Things were about the get pretty nerdy, as we would spend the next 7 hours talking about Bob Graham non-stop, and with complete and absolute enthusiasm.

There are no signs or markings showing the way to the fells, so even getting out of town took a little navigation and map reading. We power hiked up a path to the car park near Latrigg, which was already full of day hikers. The heavy fog of early morning was starting to lift, but the summit of our first peak, Skiddaw, was still out of sight. We could see people making their way up to Little Man along a stone path. It looked as if that was the route to go, but Pete indicated a path leading around it, saying I was welcome to add an extra summit, but he wouldn’t be joining me. We overtook several groups on our way up, and the weather grew colder and windier. The hikers had on multiple layers, pants, hats, gloves, etc. We wore running shorts and shirts. It didn’t take long to reach the summit of Skiddaw, and we touched the trig point that marked the top, smiling enormous grins. The sun had burned off the fog, and the entire Lake District was on full view below. At 3,054 feet, Skiddaw is the fourth tallest peak in the Lake District, and its presence over Keswick is commanding. Pete chatted up some hikers and a runner and asked them to take a photo of us behind a windbreak near the summit. I was beginning to get cold, so we discussed our route down. We would jog down the north side until the rocky section ended, then cut right and down into the valley. We could see a line through the grass leading to Great Calva, and Pete was distressed by this. “That’s from Bob Graham runners. I’ve never seen a clear path like that before. It means a lot of people are out here making attempts or doing a recce.” He couldn’t get over how clear the path was, and he was disappointed because it made things too easy. Part of the challenge of the BGR is finding your way and choosing a good line. There’s also the fear of too many people being out there tearing up the terrain. As we would soon find out, just because there was a path didn’t mean that was the best route.

We took it easy coming down the rocks, but as we turned east, we cut loose and ran. The terrain was unlike anything I had run on before. We were in tall grasses, and the ground was spongey. It wasn’t muddy, but it was wet and soft and absorbed the shock of hitting the ground to the point that it felt like you were bouncing. This would end up being my favorite part of the run. We flew down the side of the mountain, and I couldn’t help but let out a few yips and yeehaws. In the valley, we had the choice to go left down a small slope or continue forward along the path that other BGers had made. Pete had always gone left, but we figured we would try this straight path. The decision was bad and good. Bad, because it landed us in a bog. Good, because we learned a lesson: don’t blindly follow the path of others.

The thing about bogs, which I had learned years ago in Ireland, is that they look like solid ground. I’ll never forget the sight of an old friend and his pony sinking down several feet in a Connemara bog. The trail boss had carefully picked his way through the bog, being able to spot the solid ground, but Richard was having trouble managing his mount, and they sunk as a result. It reminded me of watching Artex disappear into the Swamps of Sadness in The Neverending Story, my favorite traumatic moment of childhood. Pete and I found ourselves in Candleseaves Bog. He went in first, nearly up to his waist. I tried to go around and went in about as deep. My shoes were caught in the muck, and I feared pulling out too quickly and leaving them lost forever in that boggy, soggy, squitchy world. Working my way out, I emerged covered in peaty gunk and soaked through. I couldn’t help but laugh and was just glad to still be wearing both shoes. We looked back and took note of the better approach. I filed that away for the future. During an actual BGR, I would be running this section at night, so it would be particularly important to take a good line here. Pete pointed out some white flowers, stating, “Those white flowers indicate a bog.” Again, very helpful knowledge that I filed away. We delicately picked our way across the valley, hoping for firmer ground as we started the ascent up Great Calva. It was a bit boggy, but we managed to avoid dramatic dips.

The climb up Great Calva was relatively straightforward. It was essentially hands on knees, one foot in front of the other climbing without having to think too much about our line. At the summit, there’s a large cairn, which we climbed onto and tapped the top. I added a small stone to the stack, leaving my own little mark on the mountain. From the summit, we could see clear over into Scotland, and to the east, wide open wilderness. Pete noted that hikers stick to the areas near Skiddaw, and back here you could go all day and not see another person. We couldn’t see anyone from our vantage point and shared the mountain with only sheep. It was surprising to see a fence up here. It struck me as odd to fence off a mountain, but sheep played a significant role here culturally and historically, so I suppose the farmers didn’t want their herds mixing on the mountains.

The descent off Great Calva was the most difficult thing we encountered. We could see where other BGers had descended before us and started by following their trail and heading for the small “Christmas trees,” as they were a natural visual cue for the route. We could run at first, but the trail soon became a deep, narrow, rocky groove. The heather was overgrown on either side and obstructed your view of the “trail.” This became tricky because the trail would have a steep drop that you couldn’t see, so you would take a rough step down with a jolt. My paced continued to slow as the terrain grew more difficult. I finally hopped out of the groove and into the heather. It scratched my legs to hell and still hid large rocks, but it felt safer than the gnarly trail. At least I could jog a bit. When we reached the bottom, I said, “I know in a Round attempt I would have to run down this, but no sense in injuring myself today.” He agreed.

We next had to ford the River Caldew, which wasn’t terribly difficult. We waded through water up to the hem of our shorts, but at least it rinsed off the peat from the bog. The current wasn’t too brisk but definitely took some care in crossing. On the other side, we made our way up the side of the next mountain and stopped about halfway up in a sunny spot to dry off and have a little lunch. It was kind of incredible to me. You couldn’t see another sign of human life in any direction (save for the sheep). The shadows of clouds danced across the fells and the sun warmed me. You could see the fells rising majestically up out of the river valley, their grassy slopes looking deceptively tame from a distance. I’ve never enjoyed a better lunch spot.

lunch view

Perfect lunch spot, River Caldew below.

Despite the picturesque view, we didn’t linger and soon began our final big ascent up Blencathra. To the north east we spotted a small group of climbers on what I believe was Atkinson Peak. We could have summited there and walked the ridge line over to Blencathra, but, as Pete said, “That would be too easy, and not an adventure.” Instead, we traversed along the side of the mountain, heading southeast and keeping Blencathra in our sights. While Skiddaw is the tallest of the three peaks, Blencathra is the most beloved in this area; it’s firmly embedded in the history and culture of the northern Lakes. It certainly had a character all its own, which I could feel while climbing it. A current exhibit at the local museum in Keswick was devoted to displaying its prominence in the lives of the people who live here, and I could appreciate their connection to it.

On the summit, instead of a trig point or cairn, there was a circular survey marker, which we took turns jumping into as a way of marking our summit. From there, we assessed the three options for the descent into the village of Threlkeld. Facing east and looking to the right, we first identified what’s known as the “Parachute Route.” This is a stupidly steep scree field that takes you down Gategill Fell. A runner would need to be completely confident in their ability to navigate this treacherous route. You would be running it in the dark as well, making it all the more challenging. Each year, the Keswick Rescue Team swoops in to rescue the hikers who accidentally find themselves on this route and realize that they’re in over their heads. There have also been a number of fatalities on the various descents of Blencathra, so it’s nothing to fool around with. The next route was directly in front of us, down Hall’s Fell. This route was also intimidating. It was a narrow line with steep drops on both sides and steep pitches the entire way. This seems to be the typical BG route, but it still comes with its dangers. To the left was the third option, a slightly less dangerous route down Doddick Fell. This went a bit to the north and out of the way, but some runners feel it’s the fastest option because it’s more runnable, even if it’s a longer route. Pete and I discussed which route we would take on a BG attempt. I wasn’t sure that I would have the guts for the Parachute Route, especially because you’d be running it in the dark. It seemed too risky, and from my research, it didn’t seem to save one all that much time on the descent anyway. I decided the Hall’s Fell route would likely be my choice, and Pete soon agreed. Doddick didn’t look that much easier from our vantage point, so it seemed to make sense to take the most direct line. It would still be challenging doing this in the dark, and you’d want to take care, but even with my fear of heights, it seemed manageable. From the summit, we could also catch a glimpse of the first part of Leg 2, and we discussed aspects of that route, lingering on the summit, reluctant to end the adventure.

Sadly, we weren’t able to test out any of the three descent options, because Pete had to get back to catch a train. We made our way to the southwest and down Blease Fell, heading toward Keswick. I had a little pang of regret for not completing the last descent of the BG route, but I was fortunate to have had the experience that I did. The descent down Blease Fell wasn’t as difficult as the BG routes, but it was steep all the same and took some careful thought about choosing a good line. We entered a field of ferns. It was wild to encounter a sea of ferns out in the open, as we typically see them in the forest of the PNW. We had seen some signage upon leaving Keswick that morning about the footpath along the River Greta being inaccessible due to flooding, so we tried to find an alternate route. When we reached a signpost that pointed to Kewick in one direction and Threlkeld in the opposite, I motioned toward a trail to the west that seemed right. Pete didn’t believe the direction was correct, to the point that he tested the wooden signposts to see if someone had swapped them. My sense of direction told me that the signs were correct, as did Pete’s compass and my map. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe this and said we should head east. Reaching the river valley, it was clear that this wasn’t the right direction. I’m not sure what happened, given Pete’s strong orienteering background. We retraced our steps and took the path I had suggested. This led us around the back of Latrigg and back to the car park where we had begun earlier that morning. From there, it was back down the road and into Keswick.

All told, we covered 17.5 miles and 5,900′ of elevation gain in a little over six hours.

BGR route map

BGR Leg 1 route map.

Of course, on an actual BGR, you would want to do this in 4 hours or less. Given that we ran very little, stopped for lunch, took in views at summits, and paused to discuss strategy, I feel confident that I could run this leg in under 4 hours in an actual BGR attempt. It’s not the easiest leg, and it’s run at night, but having done my own recce with an experienced fell runner, I’m left with some confidence. The experience also instilled in me a very strong appreciation for the value of a recce with experienced BGers. If I want to make a serious attempt at a Round–and I do–then it is clear to me now that I will first need to go back to recce the entire route before doing so. This will entail more time and money, both of which are in short supply for me, but the Bob Graham Round is a personal dream, and it’s one that I am committed to making a reality. I’ve made good contacts in the fell running community, even if we didn’t meet in person, and they have pointed me toward great resources to aid in planning while also offering to support me. There are also people like Pete, and Pete himself, who are happy to get out and recce a leg or two. It will be an adventure that spans some time , but it’s off to an incredible start, and I look forward to the journey that leads me round 42 fells.

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