Near the middle of the 19th century Brigham Young led his flock of Latter-Day Saints from the flatlands of Illinois to a land that was later to the become the state of Utah. The last leg of their 1,300 mile trek was across the Wasatch Range on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. Theirs must have been a tremendous test of perseverance, adventure and appreciation as they settled at the foot of the Range founding Salt Lake City. Fast forward to 1980 when another group of adventurers with an appreciation of the mountains organized a 100 mile footrace across the Wasatch Front. Yes, it is intense... in its second year of running no one even made it to the finish! Though itís raced best by those that live and train in mountains occasional flatlanders take on the challenge. For its 27th running it was my turn as a naÔve flatlander from Illinois to be called by the spirit of the mountains for this extreme adventure.
The race starts in a nonchalant setting 20 miles north of Salt Lake City between the Great Salt Lake to the west and the base of the Wasatch Range at 4880 feet elevation. Near the end of a beaten sloping road a trail detaches into a dusty sea of sagebrush. With no defined starting pen the setting appeared more like an all-night block party as runners and their crews mingled on the blacktop among support vehicles. Camera flashes and runnerís lamps helped illuminate the crisp predawn as the tension grew to 5:00am. Then we were off! Single file following an early run able path as it snaked north, paralleling the Wasatch Range, easing delicately above grid patterned lights of the suburbs spread out to the west.
For the first hour I was fortunate to share the trials with Tim Englund of Washington and local runner Shauna Heisler. Being a veteran of this race Shauna drew a blueprint of expectations. We paid close attention. Tim is a strong trail runner, sensible in researching courses and heeding the advice of others. By 6:30 we were rising steadily to meet the rising sun. Dawn exposed local fauna & flora with trees of juniper, pine, aspen, and maple - some already adorned in fall fashion. Between miles 5 and 10 we climbed from an elevation of 5600' to 9200'. Views of the Great Salt Lake Basin were incredible but risky to savor due to treacherous footing and a dizzying sense of motion parallax when trying to take it all in. While vaulting along the trail I slipped, tore off a tree branch, and came crashing down wedged between two lazyboy-chair sized boulders. Luckily I suffered only scraped palms and spilled powerade. Clawing up to the landmark "Chinscraper Summit" I met two hikers whoíd come up a shortcut to cheer runners. They obliged me a photo as I struggled to catch my breath.
The trail followed mountaintop ridges to the first aid station - Grobbens Corner at 13.35 miles. Not much of a station really... water was handed out from the back of race director John Grobbenís pickup truck. Still it was a relief to take a leisurely cool drink. Ahead we could see the gigantic double globoid Radar Towers of Francis Peak - appearing as an earthbound alien outpost on the highest peak in the area. From there a yellowish dirt road bent downward finally allowing some open stride running for a good 4 miles in which we dropped 1800 feet.
At Francis Peak Maintenance Sheds I sat in a chair as an aid station attendant picked pebbles and cleaned dirt from my scraped palms, then applied first aid cream. She had a great manicure with blood-red nails. Iíd only covered about 19 miles and it had taken over 5 hours. The day was sunny and dry with temperatures in the 60ís. I hoped the course would provide more jeep roads, where for me the going was quicker... be careful what you wish for.
About half an hour out of the aid station at 24 miles - Bountiful "B" I was feeling good and moving well. Pushing the pace to make up time along a descending jeep trail I tripped over a bowling ball sized rock embedded in the tire tracks and went airborne. Itís never the fall but the landing thatís damaging and this one was bad - on my knee and palms (not again!). I sat stunned, looked around and took inventory. More blood and skin left on the trail - mine. But how did I miss landing directly on a rock as the little bastards were littered all around? Struggling to my feet I felt the deep bruise on my knee and had to hobble for 15 minutes in an effort to "walk it off". This was agonizing as I wasnít sure how severely my knee was injured and couldnít run with the pack as it rolled down the road. Seeing my limp one sympathetic runner asked if Iíd sprained my ankle as he passed by. Learning that it was "only my knee" he seemed relieved and wished me luck. Thought about it for a moment and decided that it was better that it was "only my knee"... besides the pain had stabilized so I broke into a cautious shuffle... giving wide berth to all the suspicious looking rocks on the path.
At 30 miles the course began bobbling along ridge trails from mountaintop to mountaintop. The views were striking but the altitude and constant ups and downs were wearing on me. At the aid station Swallow Rocks near 35 miles I asked if they stocked anything for a nauseous stomach. Runner Rob Hills of Missouri overheard me and offered up some ginger candy. Rob was running in a triangular pack with Grand Slammers Kevin Dorsey and Mike Samuelson of Tennessee. I eagerly accepted Robís offering... he instructed me to suck on the candy for as long as it lasted... turned out to be a good three miles.
Pressing forward the trail stayed high on the tops of mountains. Storm clouds were gathering with dramatic lightning displays far to the south. Mercifully only a few stray sprinkles fell and the storms moved on. I had another problem. Descending into Alexander Ridge at 47.4 miles I realized my miscalculation in drop-bag packing was something I was not going to outrun. It was already after 7:00pm with sunset due in less than 90 minutes. My drop-bag with my flashlight was 5.7 miles away at the next aid station - 5.7 miles with an 800 foot climb and decent. No way I could race and beat darkness to that point. Luckily I found runner Ray Daurelle relaxing at Alexander Ridge and he lent me a penlight. It wasnít much so I left quickly, running fast to get as far as I could in natural light. I wound up with only 45 minutes of stumbling and bumbling through the darkness before arriving at Lambs Canyon - mile 53.1 - elevation 6100'.
With darkness came inevitable falling temperatures. I shivered into new socks, a warmer shirt and extra top while eating hot soup and Ĺ of a grilled cheese sandwich. The triangular pack of Rob, Kevin, and Mike were in the aid station adjusting for night running as well. I asked permission to join their group - picturing in my mind the brutal course profile over the next 25 miles and knowing the additional risks of the impending night. Permission granted. They were happy to have me and eager to get going so Kevin, Mike and I checked out of the station - Rob needed a bit more time and was going to catch up.
Blacktop road took us under Interstate-80 and up the first 1Ĺ miles of a 2000' ascent. Steeper single track trail covered the remaining two miles in which we kept a constant pace. We stayed tight when at last the trail pitched downward and dropped 1500'. Another blacktop road led us up another three miles and 1000'. Temperatures dropped as we climbed to the checkpoint Upper Big Water - notorious for being the coldest part of the course. Itís a well stocked station with drop-bags and lawn chairs arranged around a space heater set to "eleven". We took time to warm up and regroup. This current rise had just started and we were to clamber up another net 1500' to the next aid station - then an additional net 750' after that. Our foursome departed at 1:00am determined to work together through the night.
I was getting tired... not muscle soreness, but sleepy tired... a feeling that Iíd never experienced while running. The accumulation of miles was loosening our pack and exposing our weaknesses... some were better going up - some better going down. We made the next aid station, Desolation Lake spread out by a couple of minutes. I grabbed a seat by the campfire and tried to catch a quick nap but couldnít get comfortable. Our foursome splintered leaving the station as soloists separated by a few minutes each. Last to go, I looked ahead, up the switchbacks and could see headlamps bobbing in the darkness. The trail had brought us back to mountaintops at 9900' elevation... and thatís where it got weird.
Moving in a space similar to when you first wakeup and are still in your dreams I began hallucinating. In a split second I would fall asleep and awaken with the sensation of falling. For me this can be common while driving and I know how to combat it. But while running? I had no windows to roll down nor radio to turn up. I did have a rest area ahead but couldnít see its lights from my position which seemed an ideal vantage point - above all else. I tried yelling, running faster, flailing my arms, deep knee bends but the bouts of sudden sleep kept coming - with increasing frequency. I saw nobody ahead or behind. Delusions had me convinced that I was off the course. I could see trail markings and glow sticks but irrationalized they were from earlier sections that somehow I crossed over - and was now heading back to the start line - alone! The urge to turnaround became overpowering. So I did.
In good fortune and before Iíd backtracked far Rob came running up and reassured me that we were indeed on course for the next aid station. Following his lead we were soon at Scottís Transmission Tower. The tent was crowded with runners, an aid table, blasting space heater, a cot, and helpful attendants. The cot grabbed my immediate attention and soon I was completely asleep for a wonderful 10 minutes. Refreshed I awoke on my own and grabbed some calories before stepping back into the cold night air. A downward sloping jeep trail gave way to Big Cottonwood Highway and within five miles I was at a familiar landmark - the lodge at Brighton Ski Resort. Easy for me to recognize from my many ski trips to Utah.
Mile mark 75.6. Brighton Lodge aid station was indoors, had a weigh station (in which I passed), a full breakfast buffet, and purportedly a back room for sleepy runners. My race number served as my all access pass and to the back room I sped. An attendant spread out beach towels on the floor, promising to wake me in 15 minutes. But after 10 minutes my internal alarm went off and roused me unassisted. Back in the main room I had a handful of potato chips for breakfast and found Kevin & Rob - Mike had already left. It was 7:00am... weíd been going for 26 hours and had 10 hours to make the finish. The math was simple... we had to move at a rate of at least 2Ĺ miles per hour to become official finishers... the task however, was not so simple.
Upon leaving the ski lodge I began the trail climb of 1700' to the highpoint of the course at 10,450' elevation. The new dayís sun was up to display views that were every bit as spectacular as the previous dayís. And the trail was just as fierce as I remembered while stumbling and slipping down the dusty scree toward Ant Knolls aid station at 80.2 miles. The captain offered to make me eggs any style. I declined but drank a sprite with some crackers and listened as he told me of his successful runs of the Wasatch Front 100 including a sub-30 hour triumph. In his opinion the hard climbing was over and I would have only "Grunt Pass" to get past before the course would begin to tame. This news excited me as I headed out of the aid station and started the scaling up and over the 500 foot Grunt Pass. It was tough, not that bad I figured looking forward to easier trail and quicker running.
But things didnít pan out the way Iíd hoped. The trail kept snaking up and over mountain tops where the vistas were beautiful but the price was oh-so-slow-going always followed by deep steep drops down mountain faces where the terrain (at least for me) remained awkward and oh-so-slow-going. I cursed the course. I cursed my inability to run technical trails. I fell down twice - totaling four for the race - calmed down by reminding myself that Iím from Chicago - how can I be expected to run through this? Coming over the top of a mountain at 9500' I saw two motocross riders who flipped up their visors and asked me, "How much longer is this footrace going on?"!
Rain fell for about 15 minutes which turned out to be a blessing as it added some traction to the dusty downhill descents. It took me two full hours to cover the 5ĺ mile section from aid station Rock Springs to Pot Bottom - but the last 1Ĺ miles became startlingly run able. There I asked, "What is the mileage here?"
"Welcome to Pot Bottom. Youíre at 93.1 miles. Címon in and take a break. What can I get for you?", responded the attendant.
"Is there another station before the finish?"
"Nope, this is the last one...", he sensed that I wasnít going to stop, "Youíve got about a mile and three quarters to climb then itís downhill all the way in to the finish!"
This time the news was correct. A yellow jeep road led us up in a zigzag pattern before handing us off to a plunging grey trail. Finally! I eased into a run where my feet actually spent time together off of the ground - surprised to find my legs were neither tired nor sore. I passed some runners and pacers. One set of a runner and pacer passed me. I wanted to give chase but didnít dare as far too many rocks on this section of the trail sparked memories of my clumsiness from the day before. Later as the rocks dissipated my pace proportionally picked up and soon I could see that runner and pacer on our shared straightaway. I closed in and caught them on a brief uphill. When the trail pitched back downward it was virtually void of obstacles and I found myself really moving. Runners could hear me bearing down and they gave right-of-way. I came up on Mike (former pack mate) but realized it was him too late to slow down - instead we yelled "good luck" to one another. It felt like someone was drafting on my pace - I didnít look back so donít know for sure whether a drafter was actually there or it was just my imagination. I do know for sure that I was running by far the fasted of my entire summer. The single track forest trail spit us out onto paved roadway. A cheering fan yelled, "One mile to go... follow the road and go right ahead!"
Thatís where I made a last mistake... by turning 90į right at the first intersection and running one block down a residential road. It was peculiarly absent of people. I yelled "Finish line? Finish line?", but received no response - wasnít a surprise with no one about. Spinning around I could see runners ignoring my turn and sticking to the main road. No way I could blame this error on my lack of technical trail prowess. I raced back and caught up... followed the correct main road as it made a gentle bend right then a ĺ mile straight shot to the Homestead Resort. Ran across a grassy field and under the "FINISH LINE" banner... I had made it!
It was 3:30 in the afternoon when I arrived and the celebration at the finish line was well underway. The party would go strong for another five hours but runners only had an hour and a half more to finish in the allotted 36 hours. One hour after the course officially closed a giant buffet was served and the awards ceremony began. Under a few lazy clouds we enjoyed a perfect late summer evening as all finishers were recognized and presented a race buckle and customized plaque with their finishing place and time. Mine says 119th / 34:28.
Congratulations to all runners who answered the call and toed the starting line of this extreme adventure. 151 runners covered the course within 36 hours... 55 fast runners made it under 30 hours earning Spirit of the Wasatch status... 10 very fast runners broke 24 hours and earned Royal Order of the Crimson Cheetah status. The 2006 Golden Skull winners were Karl Meltzer in 20:18 and Betsy Nye in 26:20. Thanks to Race Director John Grobben, Claude Grant and the rest of the race committee, and all the volunteers who moved mountains to give us a memorable weekend in their mountains. My special thanks to Kevin, Mike, and Rob for our unforgettable night together in the Wasatch Range. Wow - what a weekend - what a mountain range - what a race that truly
lives up to far exceeds its slogan - "One Hundred Miles of Heaven and Hell"!