I had been dreaming about writing this post for a long time; my brother taking on a 100-mile endurance race known as The Bear in the state of Utah, Well, it just happened, and as it is with most highly anticipated moments, it couldn’t have been more different from what I had imagined. I am also pretty sure that my brother never expected to read any kind of account about this race after what transpired. I think however that when things go wrong, stories have the happy knack of becoming more interesting; read on!
I have been tracking my brother’s sick desire to run in ungodly long races for a few years now, and I swore two years ago I would not play a physical part of this 100-mile race. In other words; I would not “crew” for him, and I would certainly not pace any distance with him. Of course that all went out the window as the date approached.
My last experience crewing was also my first, and my brother was attempting his first 100-mile race. He had of course run in plenty of Ultra-Races before where all the distances were 50-milers and below. An ultra-runner (in my opinion of course) is a very different species from a marathon runner. For the most part, marathons (26.2 mile races) are run on the road. Yes we have all heard of how “Heartbreak Hill”, the nasty climb 20 miles into the Boston marathon, has broken many a runner down, but an ultra-runner who navigates possibly 8,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation gain in the course of one race on rough terrain is the grittier prospect of the two.
An Ultra-Runner’s nemesis is himself. Unless he is one of the handful of elite runners who clock 6 to 7.30 minute miles for the entire race hoping to actually win, he generally races against his own demons, be they physical or mental, and usually both. They have to have a deep understanding of what they are capable of and then they train to achieve their goal. The goal for most ordinary ultra-runners is to finish the race, and then the icing on the cake would be to meet or beat their goal time.
Two years ago myself and my sister June showed up to help Kristi (Sean’s awesome girlfriend and indispensable race manager!) during the race. A runner in this instance cannot do this alone; they need a support team who can help the runner at designated spots in the race (aid stations). This help takes the form of having an array of clothing the runner can change into depending on the weather, food to fuel their body’s insatiable need for sustenance, bandages, foot cream, salt tablets, energy drinks and hefty words of encouragement, oh and a couple of cow bells to ring the runner in and out as he navigates the course!
The difficult part of this job is not just prepping all of the gear and food needed, you also have to anticipate the arrival time of your runner to each aid station so you can be there to do your job. Two years ago, myself and June found out what it felt like to be sleep depraved, and also how stressful it is motoring on mostly dirt roads from one aid station to the next and then sitting around (sometimes for hours in long races especially) in a cold car or standing on some mountain top waiting for Sean to appear. Somewhere between the 62nd and 70th mile of the Run Rabbit Run 100 (read the whole account of this race HERE!) Sean became extremely fatigued and my poor little sister had a hard time watching him suffer. She wanted to whisk him off the mountain and tuck him up in his bed to sleep for a week. It was tough but he made it to the finish line and it was then I said, “NEVER AGAIN!”
My adamant stance also had a little to do with the fact that I was one of the chosen “pacers” for his race, and that was a learning curve unto itself. I am a road runner, very different from trail running, and my virgin run on trails with Sean was in the middle of the night with a headlight on my head! Talk about baptism by fire! I still cannot believe I didn’t fall and break my neck or go careening off the side of some ravine or other. Sean has talked to me so much about this stuff I fear he thinks it has rubbed off on me. Well my knowing how to do something and actually doing it are two very different propositions. I made it through unscathed but was hesitate to ever do it again without a little more trail-running practice.
Well, for a year Sean said he wouldn’t enter in another 100, that he would stick to 50’s and below (yes, still a form of madness!). Nine months ago he announced that he wanted to try another. It was called The Bear and it was an endurance race in the Canyons of Utah somewhere. I sort of said I would go if I could but really didn’t know how possible it would be for me to get away. School would have started up again, and then there was work and the usual busyness.
About three weeks ago, when I asked what the trip would entail, Sean said it would be eight days away (4 for travel and 4 at the event). Eight days??? Not possible and I had to say I just couldn’t swing it. Boy did I feel bad. I felt completely guilt-ridden and all I could picture was the lone crew of Kristi trying to manage his race all on her own. I was the one who made him the magic elixir that kept him going the last time (chicken noodle soup!) and I was his pacer; how could she keep him healthy for 30 hours all on her own???
I figured out a plan. It was crazy but I felt I could handle it: on Thursday the 25th (last week in fact), I would drive 2 hours to the Philadelphia Airport after dropping the kids to school, take a plane to Chicago and then a plane to Salt Lake City where I would rent a car and drive 2 hours to Logan, the start of the race, get some sleep, get up for the 6am race start, crew, pace and drive until the race ended on Saturday (so up all night!), and on Sunday morning drive 3 hours back to the airport and take two planes and a car home, getting me home after midnight – a cinch right! My husband was full sure I was nuts but nothing could have stopped me!
Things went very badly and Murphy’s Law reigned down on me until the bitter end. I began to believe I was either cursed or that this trip was used by the gods to test my metal in every possible way.
The day before my trip I had to have emergency oral surgery (don’t want to get into it…suffice is to say I was left with one less molar and a swollen jaw). I told myself that the antibiotics and painkillers would get me through, but honestly I was a bit freaked out. Also packing bags after anesthesia was a little tricky (I’m actually laughing now thinking back at how I must have looked plodding around the house packing up soup containers for Sean’s sustenance and trying to find my running gear!)
It rained all the way to the airport. After taking two planes I realized while watching the baggage carousel going round and round that the bag I so carefully packed was not going to appear. I never check bags, always traveling with a carry-on for fear of moments like this one. But I had no choice. This checked bag contained the magic elixir (chicken noodle and lentil soups, which I made and froze in sturdy plastic tubs heavily bound in tape before the trip) and so I couldn’t carry it on. My whole plan to arrive in time to drive my little rental car in the daylight was foiled when the lady in Lost Baggage told me it was on a plane that would get it to Salt Lake City Baggage Claim at 9.15pm, five hours from now!
After weighing out all my options, the best plan was to stay put and pick up the bag myself. I looked around baggage claim and there wasn’t a restaurant in sight, and I was starving (it was also 90* outside). I decided to make the best of a bad situation and took the light rail train from the airport to Salt Lake City’s city center. This was my only chance to get a glimpse of the city and I figured getting stranded was meant to be.
With my carry-on bag and a small backpack in tow, I set off to find a restaurant. I was fading and wilting in the heat and must have looked deranged when a very friendly security guard at this posh outdoor shopping mall asked if I was okay? “Not really” I said, “I’m famished and need you to steer me in the direction of a good restaurant”. He said that not only would he give me a good recommendation but that he would personally escort me there himself! This was the beginning of my becoming acutely aware that a woman alone attracts a lot of attention in the sympathy and pity departments.
As we walked he told me that he was from Philadelphia and had been adopted by a Mormon family when he was a baby and had lived in Salt Lake City ever since. His dream was to become a police officer and work the streets of Philadelphia. He was in pretty good spirits because earlier that day he had arrested a shoplifter. Even though I was tired and hungry I could see that my delay could be turned into something good. He left, after I was safely installed, telling me to be careful and good luck with “your crazy brother!”
The restaurant was a big plush Italian place and was starting to fill up with diners. “Table for one” I said, with a nonchalance that made it seem like I do this every day. I was taken to a table where I could see the open kitchen on one side and had a full view of the dining room on the other; the perfect spot for a lone diner.
After situating my luggage I sat down and for the first time that day took a deep breath. I looked at my watch and planned to stay at least a couple of hours before taking the train back to the airport. I would eat slowly!
I called my brother and my family and took a couple of selfies for my kids, to show them that I was still feeling chipper (taking selfies in public is weird!). Then it was time to look at the wine list. I needed a drink very badly indeed. My server was an absolute dream of a man who, after I told him my sad tale, did everything in his power to make me happy and welcome. In fact, every server who passed me on their way to the kitchen gave me puppy-dog eyes as if to say “we feel your pain”
It was an odd feeling. I had time to think about this. I realized how little time I spend alone in public. I am alone quite a bit during the day in my house, or when I am running (one of the reasons I run in fact is to be alone!) and feel very comfortable. This didn’t feel so comfortable and I think it is because I had lots of time to survey the situation. Servers felt pity and other diners were simply curious.
After an hour or so I didn’t care anymore. I got used to myself and thought that perhaps I should get stranded more often. I dawdled over my food in the best possible way and had two lovely glasses of Chianti. When Michael, (my server) inquired about dessert, “why not!” I said. At that point the manager Bob came over to offer his commiseration and that he hoped my trip was made easier by the food and atmosphere. These people were friendly beyond belief and I left feeling optimistic and courageous about my drive in the dark through the canyons of Utah.
My optimism was short-lived when upon returning to the airport, I discovered one of the soup containers had exploded in my case and that my rental car agreement had expired and I had to rent a more expensive car!
The drive was a nightmare with tons of construction, and while driving in the dark I kept imagining that I was driving on a road that hung precariously on a mountain ledge. I ending up on the right street in the wrong town. I drove to Logan where the race started instead of to the town next door where my brother was staying. I arrived just before 1am. I didn’t even see my brother until 4 hours later when I had to get up to go to the starting line.
Sean’s excitement to see me cured my tiredness and exhaustion. When we arrived in the dark at about 5.45am the place was mobbed with runners, their crew, officials and well-wishers. It felt like a party. Sean said he would not know many people, but the few he did know somehow managed to spot him before they took off. It was great to watch; seeing a whole bunch of running fanatics in one place gearing up for a race was a sight to behold; who were these people and were they all as crazy as my brother?
Kristi and I sized up the competition. Generally they all looked like running beasts, but you had to wonder if a few would make it. Kristi looked at one person and said, “how on earth is he a runner?” She made me laugh out loud. I told her to ask him, and like all the runners I have met of this caliber, he would be sure to tell her in minute detail his complete race plan and strategy! Best not ask and opt instead for a much-needed cup of coffee at Starbucks.
Leaving Sean was emotional for all of us. We hugged and took pictures and all I kept thinking was “do a good job Sean, and don’t die out there!” I was also anticipating all the work ahead of Kristi and I, and the pacing I was scheduled to do at mile 51 to mile 75 and then from mile 85 to the end. The first 14 would be in the dark with my trusty headlight and as usual my mind went to my falling from the trail into the dark abyss. Sean never thought about that stuff which is what separates us as runners We both love the sport equally but he goes after it like an animal, while I am content to run on my safe little country roads. Mad or not, when I watched him run into the darkness and then blend with the other runners, I was full of pride and admiration.
Kristi and I managed to find a Starbucks and sat drinking our coffee until the sun rose. I just wanted to watch the sun come up because I knew Sean would be watching it too.
We headed back to the house saying we had plenty of time to get to the 2nd Aid Station. Sean did not plan to arrive until 11.15 am at the earliest (according to his Race Plan). We began to get the truck completely ready for a night of crewing. That meant the food had to be heated and put in the many thermos, first aid bag completely stocked, sock bag, jacket bag, top back, bottom bag and running shoes all needed to be packed and ready for any emergency or any request. And this was just Sean’s gear. We also had to pack what we would need; food, clothing, sleeping bags etc. It was going to be a long day and a very long night.
The house they had rented for two days was a strange sort of place. There was a pig and chickens in the back yard, as well as a couple of apple trees. It felt like the owners had just left for a couple of nights and we snuck in while they were gone! I was there a sum total of 7 hours and then we were on the road.
It was then we discovered that the directions to each aid station must have been written by someone who presumed we knew the area. There were directions like, take the road to “blank” (the name of a town) and turn left at the fork to Canyon Road. It was then we also noticed that there was more than one Canyon Road, or rather more than one canyon!
With sheer guess-work and an informative lady at a gas station we careened our way to the 2nd aid station only to discover that Number 60 (Sean!) had checked through at 10.30am! Which meant even if we had arrived on time, we would have been too late to catch him! This was not part of the plan!
Kristi and I realized that if we were late at this Aid Station and he appeared to be running faster than was anticipated, we would also miss him up to Aid Station 4 perhaps, so we should try to catch him at Right Hand Fork, Aid Station 5. It was 36 meandering miles away – in a different canyon! By then he would have run just under 37 miles (triple what I have ever run at one time by the way).
Kristi mumbled something about how he was running too fast and that the first climb was the hardest of the course (with an immediate elevation gain of 4,000 on the first hill!). She was worrying about how he could keep it up and then of course we forgot about him and started wondering if we would be able to keep up with him while running with him? Kristi had never paced before and said emphatically that she was “not a runner!” and that he could just run on without her. We devised a new plan if that happened where I would wait for Kristi to arrive before taking off to the next Aid Station 10 miles away.
As we drove to Aid Station 5 I was mesmerized by the scenery. It was the kind of terrain I had only seen in cowboy films; canyon walls, steep drops and enormous brown mountains dotted with pine trees on all sides. Sean was in there somewhere running to meet us. I couldn’t even imagine what that must be like but I knew if he was feeling fit and strong that it must have been wonderful. Then I thought that when I ran later that night I would be deprived of any majestic views of giant rocks and mountains of evergreens. My view would be limited by my headlight to the patch of ground directly in front of me.
The Aid station was on a narrow, winding dirt road but we made it there before Number 60! It was really hot, about 84*, with no shade. There was a wonderful little fast flowing stream right there and some of the runners coming through took a moment to soak their feet or fill their caps with water before leaving again.
We waited for over an hour. We knew we were early but this was the safest thing to do. I knew he must have been disappointed not seeing us at mile 19 and mile 27. We knew that if he needed help or was running low on things like salt tabs and goo (things that keep you going out there, but still all a bit of a mystery to me), we could revive him at this meeting point.
I stood a little ways up the path so I could see him appearing from the base of the mountain and got to watch other runners coming through. There were all met by their crew members; husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, friends and pets. They would clap and cheer them into the Aid Station and fuel them up before cheering them onward again. These ultra runners would come in looking ready for some encouragement and leave with smiles (for the most part). Nothing fills a person up more than a pat on the back from the ones they love. They take that energy and love and hold onto it until the next Aid Station. It’s how most of them keep going. There are some diehards out there who go it alone, but there is nothing better than seeing a familiar face – and that’s a fact.
Sean appeared out of nowhere and all of a sudden we were not prepping, or driving or waiting anymore. We were scurrying around him giving him Vaseline and a bandage for a foot irritation, an energy drink, a cup of hot soup and a sponge drenched in the river to wash off some of the dirt and mud. He was in great spirits and I think he may have been aware that he was ahead of his goal pace but I don’t think he really knew how well he was doing. I know it was only mile 36 but he seemed as fresh as a daisy. He was even joking around and laughing with the rest of the runners in our little pop-up tent area.
We got him ready and on his way but not before a fabulous aid station volunteer dumped a big pitcher of water over his head! He left all smiles and said he would see us soon.
And that was it. We got to the next Aid Station at mile 45.15 and waited and waited. Kristi changed into her running gear and got herself psyched up to run. It was way too long, and right when I was beginning to question what might be going on, a jeep pulled up to our truck and Sean was sitting in the front seat. I was completely incredulous and dumbstruck. Why?
At mile 41 Sean felt a sharp pain in his hip which crippled him. He could barely walk. He limped for several miles but knew his race was over, just like that. Something had gone wrong and pulling out was the smartest thing to do. He had run in enough races and experienced enough injuries to know when to stop. We all just sat there and didn’t really know how to change gears. Sean was surprisingly the one who consoled us, and told us he had a great race up to that point and was grateful that this injury didn’t hit at mile 60 or mile 80. He said he was okay and that we should pack up and go to the house he had booked at the end of the race.
I was so upset for him but in the same moment I realized I would not have to run and I would get to bed that night. I had had about 4 hours of sleep in 36 and I wondered if I would have even held up myself. I am not really the kind of person who says, “it was meant to be”, but right then I was pretty relieved it was to be. My body was done, my face hurt from surgery and I was hungry all over again. I started to think about a warm house and what we would eat when we got there.
We wound through the Canyon to Bear Lake and the house was large and comfortable. The bad news was that the only thing we had was “Race Food” and that was the last thing we wanted to eat. The good news however was that we had plenty of wine and some great microbrew beers to console us!
We were in the middle of nowhere and the only place to buy food was at a sort of gas station/mini-grocery store a couple of miles away. We had frozen pizza and Lean Cuisine for dinner (it was either that or hotdogs) and with a good sip of wine with every bite, it tasted pretty good to us! We were all deflated but we laughed and chatted and made the very best of a disappointing situation.
That night, as I tucked the covers up around me I thought about those runners in the canyon and hoped they would all make it through the night. It was supposed to rain. I heard nothing, but I found out the next morning that there was severe thunder and lightning. Kristi couldn’t believe that I didn’t wake up when the thunder clapped and the lightening lit up our bedrooms. Wow, I really was tired.
That morning Sean was inundated with texts, phone calls and emails. Everyone wanted to know what happened. He had a big support system who were with him in spirit and they felt disconnected suddenly. We were all in this together and it was hard not to see it through. We knew how hard he had worked and to not finish was crushing.
We had the whole day to let it sink in and we ate like kings that night; the first really good meal in days (of course we cooked it ourselves!). And, as it is with human nature, by that evening we were able to see all the good that came from this; Sean got to run 40 perfectly splendid miles, I got to witness it with Kristi, who was the best company to keep in the world, and I got to see what we were all made of at the end of the day – very fine metal indeed.
We will return here to finish what we started…