I started putting on sunscreen in the dark. It was 4:30 in the morning, the pitch-black dark pierced only by the headlamps of other runners and the headlights on the cars of occasional latecomers. The stars glittered above us, Cassiopeia in her chair, the Big Dipper pouring out its water, and Cygnus the Swan, son of Neptune, flying his endless, tireless journey. I focused on Cygnus.
The improbability began two days earlier. I climbed a ridge in the back of Beehive Basin with my dad and my wife on our last backpacking day before the HURL Elkhorn 50 Mile. I told them about a video of Kilian Jornet running down Grants Swamp Pass in the Hardrock a few weeks earlier, how he had dropped down hundreds of feet of near vertical scree in a matter of seconds. Then I gave them my best impression and ran down the steep slope back to camp. After watching my descent, my dad told me I would win the race. I mentioned that I hadn’t been in danger of winning a race since middle school, but his confidence wasn’t fazed.
At packet pickup the next day, race director Steve Engebrecht handed me my bib, embossed with a bright red number 1. I told him he couldn’t be serious. I said that number 1 should be reserved for a returning champion, but Steve told me that in all his years directing the race he’d never had a winner return to run again. The course was too hard. Pause. Wicked grin. Chuckle from Steve and another veteran, Scott Blum, who was volunteering this year instead of running. I tried to join in the laughter, but the joke was clearly at my expense.
In the dark before the race I rubbed the gleaming line of sunscreen over my neck and arms. It disappeared into my skin, becoming part of me, becoming, along with my shoes and sleeves, headlamp and handheld, a final piece of armor wrapped around my body to shield me during the coming day. Around my muscles and tendons I had wrapped the countless hill repeats and pounding intervals; around my mind the exhaustion of endless long runs. I hoped, as Scott Jurek says, that the work would protect me during my most trying moments. I hoped I had learned how to suffer.
As the 5 AM start approached we clustered around to hear Steve Engebrecht’s last minute advice. Without fanfare he drew a line across the dirt of Crystal Creek road with his foot. “This is your starting line,” he said, and we all stood back. No one wanted to commit hubris this early, but moments later we surged forward with Steve’s “three, two, one, GO!”
I ran the Crystal Creek ascent next to a tall man with a red beard and a woman with the quickest
cadence I’d ever heard on a runner. His name was Eric Gilbert, and she was Becky Wheeler. I asked Eric if he planned to win, but he said no. Becky asked what time I was shooting for, and I said maybe eleven hours if everything went well. She dropped back, apparently thinking of a longer time for herself, or perhaps thinking I’d committed my hubris already.
I took the lead on the single track climb up the flanks of Casey Peak. Most runners dropped their headlamps in a box at the top of the road, but I kept mine and used the extra light to accelerate by the others in the predawn gloom. I crested the ridgeline alone and dropped down into Casey Meadows, yip yip kiyee-ing a heard of black cows off the trail. I chased four elk across the meadows, heard the chirping of early morning songbirds, and startled a grouse into flight. The wilderness thrived with life, both hidden and visible. I relished the life around me. I had come home to Montana to see my family, reconnect with the wilderness, and enjoy these mountains. I cherished the opportunity to run on these trails with all the wild things, predator and prey, and to pretend to be a predator myself. On the climb toward second ridge I heard clattering on the scree above me, evidence of large animals obscured by a dense stand of lodgpole pine. More elk, or mountain goats, or maybe a moose? A bear? I didn’t know.
As I ran the words of better runners echoed in my head. On the descent to Teepee Creak I heard Sally McRae talking about quick stepping down the steep technical tracks of the Western States (quick feet quick feet quick feet). Kilian Jornet described the mountain goat descending, weight over its back feet, front feet stretched forward (center mass center mass center mass). Scott Jurek – “Flow downhill like water” (momentum momentum momentum) and Caballo Blanco – “Don’t fight the trail” (easy light smooth fast easy light smooth fast). On the climb to Elk park there was Yassine Diboun’s voice “if you have to hike, hike like you’re late for work” (late for work late for work late for work) and the advice I got from Krissy Moehl “start running before you get to the top of the hill, and keep running after the next hill starts” (start running start running keep running keep running!). As I worked up the switchbacks the sun broke over the saddle behind me, bathing the sky and ground in pink and orange. I turned for a moment, awash with its glory.
I ran alone through Elk Park and past Tizer Lake. The climbs were relentless, steep, and rocky. My energy ebbed away, and I felt my like stomach was liquefying. Just before the highest point of the first half I heard runners talking behind me, and on the descent to Elkhorn Ghost Town I heard the clattering of Eric Gilbert’s feet on the rocks. I stepped aside to let him pass. He looked so strong running by, and I stumbled in his wake. At that moment I was sure I would never see him again.
My family met me at the Elkhorn Town aid station. My son rang his cowbell, and my sister raised her hand for a high five. I collapsed on a cooler, gratefully accepting soda from the aid station crew. In a moment I had four people massaging my legs, my parents each taking a calf, my wife on one quad and my sister on the other. I told them that I felt terrible, that my stomach was flipping out. I thanked them for being so nice and supporting me. They gave me a moment, but then my sister bent down and looked straight into my eyes. “Quit thanking us and get out of here!”
I left the aid station in third – Eric Gilbertson had left as I arrived, and Adam Parkison had passed through while I sat on the cooler. I followed their footprints in the dust past Elkhorn Cemetery. I thought of Geoff Roe’s essay on racing, not just running, and I measured the length of their strides in the dust against my own. To my surprise I discovered I was gaining on them.
I found Adam at the first crossing over Elkhorn creek. He was splashing water on his head, overheated and trying to cool down. I went one step further, lying down in the icy water and rolling over, drenching myself. It helped. I passed Adam on the steep climb up Queen’s Gulch, dropped him, and soon I saw Eric pounding up the hill.
I passed Eric just before Leslie Lake, but he stuck with me when I tried to pull away. We ran together for three miles before he dropped back. I tried to widen the gap, ignoring the screaming of my sea level trained lungs as we climbed near 9000 ft elevation on the shoulder of Crow Peak. I bounded over rock fields, followed distant signposts through meadows of waist-high grass, navigated crisscrossing animal paths deep in the forest, always looking ahead for the next trail marker. I got lost in the maze, backtracked, found my way, got lost again, rediscovered the route, and soldiered onward. A mental haze descended as I traversed the woods. I kept looking for the Tizer Creek aid station and listening for the chatter of the volunteers, but time and distance seemed to stretch boundlessly, as if the journey would never end.
I was so grateful for company when Scott Blum greeted me at Tizer Creek that I lingered, and soon Eric Gilbertson arrived as well. We left the aid station together, and a minute later we heard cheers for another runner. Was it Adam, recovered from the heat? Or Brian Story, who’d run smartly and conservatively over the first half, reeling us in? Had Becky Wheeler’s quick feet carried her through the field to our heels? I quickened my pace.
Over the final thirteen miles I put a minute per mile on the field. Ignoring pain, exhaustion, dehydration, sugar depletion, and all the hallmarks of every ultra runner’s race, I pushed and pushed and kept pushing. On the climb back to Elk Park I chased down a multitude of 50K’ers, trying to encourage them as I went by. On the descent to Teepee Creek I used every trick I’d ever learned for downhill running and blazed down the switchbacks. With five miles to go I found my sister, who’d hiked in from the road to pace me. She’d had no information since my third place exit from Elkhorn Town, and she was preparing to tell me how many runners where ahead of me and how much time I had to make up. Instead, she saw me in first, and she began jumping up and down and screaming. She was super pumped, and she fed me that energy all the way to the finish. We flew down the single track, blew past the aid station unchecked, and hammered down the road to McClellan Creek Campground. There was my son, furiously ringing his cowbell. There was my wife, yelling and waving. There were my parents, chasing after me to the end. I ran under the finish banner at 10:22:52, overcome and with tears in my eyes.
From my spot on a chair by the finish I cheered the other runners across the line. A few 50K’ers, then Eric Gilbertson, finishing second overall and winning the master’s division. Becky Wheeler, first in the women’s race and setting a new master’s division course record. Adam Parkison, nearly overcome by the heat in Queen’s Gulch, charging home in seventh. A multitude of others whose names I didn’t know, but whose courage and tenacity glowed brighter than the afternoon sun. As I sat there I thought about running and about winning, and somehow it didn’t make any sense. Had we really been competing? Or was the competition a mere marker on a trail toward the mountains, where we could run free? I didn’t know, but I did think that next year Steve might have his first returning champion.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the tenacity and decency of the volunteers at the HURL Elkhorn endurance runs. Volunteers at all ultra races go above and beyond the call of duty (just ask Joe Grant!), but usually the aid stations are supported by easy road access with motorized vehicles. Most of the stations in the Elkhorns are accessible by foot only. Above and beyond by this measure means backpacking in the night before, carrying gels and bars, bananas, potatoes, and a hand-pumped water filter, then waking early in the morning to purify enough water from the stream to cool a full race of runners. Doing these things with bright smiles and raucous cheering, the HURL volunteers epitomized the wonderful spirit of Montana and the race.
I wrote the piece above with the hope of publication in Ultrarunning Magazine, which caused me to gloss over or leave out entirely some memorable events in favor or brevity and flow. I’ll cover those here.
This is the first race where I’ve really used crew and a pacer. Laurie’s pacing exploits (friggin’ awesome pacing exploits, that is!) were covered in some detail, but I’d like to enshrine in memory the importance and joy of having my family running support for me. Crew access was limited to Teepee Creek and Elkhorn town, but that didn’t stop us from taking full advantage. My mom and MJ hiked in to Teepee Creek aid station in the dark and met me when I arrived there at 6:45 am. Their presence was inspiring and heartwarming, but more importantly at that early juncture was their willingness to take my headlamp, shirt, and sleeves. This allowed me to run the first ten miles of the race warm and well lit without having to worry about carrying extra weight on the eighteen-mile stretch from Teepee Creek to Elkhorn. The advantage of the light, in particular, allowed me to outrun my competitors early.
The other key strategic decision I made, also possible only due to my family’s crewing, was to carry a single 20 oz handheld during the first half of the race. This setup was perfect during the cool morning, allowing me to carry minimal weight and run shirtless and even hands free as soon as the bottle was light enough to tuck in the back of my shorts. There was no way that was going to work in the afternoon heat, when the aid stations would be 75 to 90 minutes apart, the temperature in the upper 80’s, and the climbs on south faces with full exposure to the sun. My family gave me a lot of things at Elkhorn town, importantly the aforementioned encouragement and leg massages. What I didn’t mention is that my wife also handed me a hydration vest with more than twice the water capacity of my handheld. The two bottles in the vest allowed me to stay hydrated internally and externally during the hot part of the race.
The “external hydration” component is critical and worth describing further. I didn’t drink much more than 20 oz of water between the aid stations in the second half of the race because I wasn’t particularly thirsty and I didn’t want to become hyponatremic. Hyponatremia (defined as low blood sodium levels, which can be race-threatening at a minimum and life-threatening in the extreme) happens when an athlete drinks too much during intense exercise. Antidiuretic hormone, which tends to be up-regulated by the sympathetic nervous system during exercise, limits fluid loss via urination. Simultaneously, loss of sodium in sweat leads to net sodium depletion, which in turn leads to confusion, loss of muscle control, and ultimately seizures if things go too far. Strangely enough, sodium ingestion during exercise is not associated with an increase in blood sodium levels in the short term, so salt tablets won’t save you. What will save you is using the extra water bottle to squirt water on your head and chest and down your back, keeping your head and shirt wet while you run. As a heat-control method this is even more effective than sweating, since the water is cooler than your body temperature. It’s not quite as good as rolling over in Elkhorn Creek or diving into Leslie lake, but it’s far more portable and has the advantages of being less time consuming and of leaving your feet dry.
I’d also like to write about the impact of altitude and the importance of downhill technique. In short, altitude killed me in this race. Never have I walked so much runnable terrain, and never have I felt so limited by my breathing. Compared to the Cayuga Trails 50 I ran in June, the Elkhorns were a bit more technical and had slightly more vertical change, but are run at an altitude that is about 7,000 feet higher. Put that together and I was 85 minutes slower. I don’t have great advice for anyone about how to handle this (other than not moving to New Jersey!), but don’t underestimate the difference in oxygen availability at sea level compared to even moderate (8,000-8,500 ft!) elevations.
Downhill technique, on the other hand, won the race for me. I essentially ran even with or behind Eric Gilbertson on the flats and ascents, but I put serious time into him on the two descents to Teepee Creek, early on from the Casey Peak ridge and late coming down from Elk Park (in fairness, he did beat me on the descent to Elkhorn town when I was in my worst low of the race). The interesting part of this is that I suck at downhill running. I only consider it a strength because almost everyone else sucks even worse than I do!
Here’s the thought experiment: Go to the top of your favorite hill. Imagine dropping a soccer ball at your feet and watching it roll down the slope. It rolls slowly at first, then accelerates, then really starts to fly. By the time that it gets to the bottom, it’s probably be moving at a completely uncatchable pace, maybe faster than a car on a freeway, possibly even faster than an airplane if your favorite hill is more fun than mine! The ball would also be caroming off rocks and bouncing off trees, and if you ever found it again it would probably be scarred beyond recognition. The thought experiment tells us two things. First, without providing any propulsive effort, we should be able to accelerate downhill to an unbelievable pace. Second, if we do that completely uncontrolled, we’ll end up scarred beyond recognition. If we ponder that for a moment, we realize that downhill running is entirely a balance exercise. Gravity provides the power, and our legs are responsible for keeping our motion headed in the right direction, over the rocks and around the trees, essentially by making small lateral adjustments. The common mistake we make as runners is stepping out in front of our bodies and forcing eccentric contraction through the quads to slow us down, giving us more time to make those lateral moves. This, naturally, SLOWS US DOWN, and has the side benefit of trashing our quads. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year teaching myself to descend while keeping my footstrikes under my center of mass, which prevents me from using my quads to slow down. This naturally means that I have very little time to make the quick adjustments in direction. To accommodate for that I use the trick of increasing my cadence to the 110-120 strides/minute range, far above what I use for running flats or climbs. The larger number of footstrikes gives me more opportunities to correct my balance and adjust direction; in essence the larger number of footstrikes gives me a larger number of opportunities to avoid falling. It also allows me to keep each footfall light, spreading the increased downward impact over a large number of steps, further saving the quads. I’m still not great at this (seriously, take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQbEaiHPI9k, and note how Kilian drops about 400 ft in 45 seconds without ever planting his feet at all! Also note how Kilian puts about 30 seconds on Tim Olson and Julie Chorier, two world class trail runners, on this one descent), but I’m good enough to run away from the more typical competition on extended technical descents.
Lastly, a side note on food: I grew up eating fairly large amounts of zucchini, on account of the facts that it is green and grows well in my parents garden. I did not, on the other hand, eat it entirely willingly. Zucchini, while cooking, transforms from woody to soggy in a matter of moments and has neither attractive flavor nor texture in either form. I’ve enjoyed zucchini genuinely twice in my life, once during a French cooking class (don’t even think you can repeat the wizardry shown by that chef) and once at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY. The Moosewood cooks proffered up a stew of beans, various vegetables, and, shockingly, zucchini! More shockingly, the flavor and texture were amazingly awesome.
I haven’t attempted to recreate the Moosewood recipe directly, in part because I’m sure I would fail and in part because it’s probably included in one of their available cookbooks. I have, on the other hand, taken on the task of making palatable zucchini-based stews. The effort yielded a tasty concoction, which I made twice for my families and in laws while home in Montana. The result, as described below, naturally substitutes yellow squash for my green nemesis.
What I used:
½ cup red quinoa, simmered for 10 minutes with 3 cups water
1 cup black beans added at 10 minutes
1 cup garbanzo beans added at 10 minutes
4 cloves pressed garlic added at 10 minutes
2 medium size yellow squash, cut along the midline and then diagonally to ½ inch chunks added at 20 minutes
20 mint leaves, finely chopped, added at 20 minutes
2 nectarines, diced, added at 20 minutes
20 fresh basil leaves added at 20 minutes
simmer until 30 minutes
salt and chilly infused sesame oil to taste
The recipe essentially involves simmering a large pot of water and adding ingredients every ten minutes over a 30-minute period. If you’re a fast chopper, it literally takes 30 minutes to complete. If you’re a mere mortal in the kitchen, or if you have a three-year-old demanding half your attention, I’d suggest getting a start on chopping the yellow squash, mint, and nectarines (substitute 4 black plums if nectarines are out of season) before starting the water. The resulting stew provides a complete protein, courtesy of the quinoa and beans, so it can be used as a main dish on a low effort day. On an intense training day it serves as a tasty side to something with higher calorie density. Makes 4 servings.
One last question: is it any good? I can only tell you this; my farther-in-law, David Tudor, had two bowls. That’s right. An Iowa farmer turned Montana machinist asked for a second serving of a vegan, low sodium stew. Consider yourself warned.