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The Western States 100 Endurance Run

It was 4:50 AM and there was a buzz in the air. I was in Squaw Valley Ski Resort at the start of the Western States 100 Endurance Run with 368 other runner/adventurers. There were Olympic Rings behind us (this was a winter Olympic venue in 1960). This year's race had 40 states and 30 countries represented. Some had waited 7 years to be standing at this moment in time. I first heard about this race from a book I read back in 2004. At the time, running 100 miles through rugged mountains sounded completely absurd! The race director let us in on a little secret...that this race would be made even tougher this year due to the 500 inches of snow the course had seen over the winter and record high temperatures earlier in the week. The announcer started the countdown, told us to enjoy the beauty, love your competitors and thank the over 1500 volunteers that would help get us to the finish. Then the shotgun blast sounded. It was 5am. We started up the 4 mile; 2500 ft climb up the ski run to Emmigrant Pass in the dark.

The Western States trail was built in the 1850s by the miners moving to the area during the California gold rush. It was said that no one could travel through that kind of terrain but those guys were determined. Fast forward a century and the course was being used to test the mettle of endurance horse races and in 1974 one guy was told it was not possible to travel the trail from start to finish in one day on foot. He took the challenge and completed it in 23 hours. The sport of trail ultrarunning was born. Now every June, adventurers from all over the world come to test their toughness on the beautiful course.

My goal coming into the race was to run sub 24 hours over the course which climbs 18,000 ft and descends 23,000 ft (Yeah, my quads hurt and I have missing toenails to prove it!). The forecast was accurate. We were slipping and sliding on the snow for the first 15 miles and then the snow turned to muddy bogs from the snow melt. There were 17 runners not able to make the 10am cutoff at mile 16. That would be foreshadowing for the rough day to come. I felt more beat up than I typically would 5 hours into a long race. I saw my crew at mile 30 where the temps were already into the mid 80s. They loaded me up with a bandanna full of ice around my neck, ice in my hat, ice in my arm sleeves some food and off I went knowing the next 32 miles through the canyons would be the toughest of the course. I rolled through the next several aid stations, climbed really strong over Devils Thumb (1500 ft climb in 1.5 miles) and climbed out of El Dorado Canyon and was totally gassed at mile 55 (temp: +100 F). My crew gave me food and pushed me out of the aid station. I hooked up with them at mile 62 at the same time my legs were coming back. Branndon would pace me from here into the night to the river crossing at mile 78. The evening didn't let up. The temps were unusually warm and humid. At this point, my stomach was nauseous so I was only able to eat fruit which didn't give me many calories or energy. Sub 24 hrs was slowly fading away. I took a break at the river crossing then picked up my pacer Taylar and we marched on into the dark. It's at this point in a 100 miler when doubt definitely creeps in and Taylar was able to stay positive for me and keep things light. We ran and hiked off and on for the next 16 miles as I stumbled into mile 94 at around the 25 hour mark. I took a break and then Chad jumped on the pacing train and I could smell the finish line up ahead. I was catching wind of what happened to some of the lead men and women throughout the day and it sounded like the day was breaking people's will. That encouraged me to know that I wasn't the only one out there death marching. I chugged a Mountain Dew and somehow got my final wind and Chad was wondering where all the energy was coming from (probably from all the slow hiking the last few hours). We pushed about 9 min/mile pace the last few miles and passed maybe 8 runners in just that short stretch to sneak under top 100 overall. Finish 26:08 ; 99th place

This race lived up to the hype. It had all the energy and prestige that I had been hearing about for so long. No one race is like the other. I always say there's a transformative power to suffering. We are a week out and I'm still processing this one but it'll be a day I never forget (It helps that Jessica went into labor while I was in California ;) If you haven't seen her, say hello to Avonlea Jane Bargo!)

Let's just say a newborn baby makes recovery harder and easier at the same time.

Thanks to my crew/family Gayle, Stephen, Branndon, Taylar, Hilary, Chad & Jessica for giving me the support to be out there battling the elements. No one told them about having to dump ice on all areas of my body (the race provided 22,000 lbs of ice for the runners!!) and feed me unending supplies of sweet potato fries but they managed just fine.

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Apalachicola Bluffs bring out Florida’s Hidden Tribe of Ultra Athletes

It’s 6am and still raining after an all night lightning show. Eighty people are milling about in the dark with headlamps on laughing and telling stories as if it were 5 o’clock happy hour. I’d just arrived at Torreya State Park about 50 miles west of Tallahassee for the Draggin’ Tail 50k Ultra Trail Challenge. To my left is Vince; he’s won this race 7 times. He has raced all over the world including the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race that runs 103 miles through France, Italy, Switzerland and climbs over 31,000 ft. To my right is Charn, he’s also won this race and has done such races as Canada’s Fat Dog 120 mile run which climbs 28,000+ ft. And finally I’m chatting with Pat whom I’ve just met and he mentions that he just finished the Georgia Death Race just 2 weeks prior, a race that bills itself as the “68 mile course from hell”. You ask yourself why these guys would be sitting at the start of an unknown 50k ultramarathon in the Florida Panhandle? Well…these athletes seek out the most challenging terrain in America and the world and all live in Florida. Most would say that’s not saying much when it comes to Florida terrain but those people haven’t been to Torreya State Park.

Unthinkably, even some of the thickest Florida hiking guidebooks don’t mention Torreya’s trails. Torreya State Park is one of the original Florida state parks that were developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. The site was selected to be a park primarily because it possesses significant historical links, including the location of six Confederate gun pits along Neal’s Bluff and an early 19th century cotton warehouse at Rock Bluff Landing. The park was also named after the rare Florida tree. Modern scientists report that the Torreya tree is one of the oldest known tree species on earth. There is said to only be 200 of them left.

The race has very limited entries due to the parks role of protecting the 4 unique ecosystems the race director has seamlessly connected. Getting into the race isn’t like most races. It usually requires you having to know somebody who has done it themselves.

After all the start line banter, the director yells go and the race takes off at a conversational pace but quickly picks up speed. I carry a 20oz handheld bottle to fill with water and was loaded down with energy gels. I plan on taking in 200 calories per hour. The trick is to take in a little at a time to give yourself a steady source of fuel. The course is spectacular. With the previous night’s downpour, we run through muddy cypress swamps and knee-deep creek crossings, then climb out via big and steep red clay bluffs along the Apalachicola River, and then finish in the pine wood uplands. All along the way, the elevation change never relents. I cross the finish line muddy, battered; sore from kicking never-ending roots and top out at close to 4,000 feet of elevation gain for the day (unheard of for Florida). I leave Torreya State Park deeming it the Himalayas of Florida…and Vince champion yet again.

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