Thursday, September 14, 2017

Wasatch: Another Lesson in Humility and Altitude

From the beginning I said the plan was audacious. The Order of the Hrimthurs followed by the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. All of this just a few short months after completing the Super Midwest Slam. After my finish at Arrowhead I felt that anything was possible. I could finish any race I put my mind to and then Western States slapped me down. It was a hot day with difficult conditions in the high country. So the Slam was out but I carried on and suffered through a finish at Vermont. Then came Leadville where I felt so good until the climb at Hope Pass which cost me too much time and got me cut off. So be it. In the immediate aftermath I considered not even going to Utah to give Wasatch a try. But I did go and this is what happened.

The Wasatch 100 is one of the oldest 100s in the country, this being the 38th running. This year would be special due to the possibility of smoke filled air from the many forest fires out west and possibly the highest temperatures the race had seen. Again I would be facing my big three weaknesses: Heat, altitude and relentless climbing.

Wasatch does not play around when it comes to getting the steep ascents going. After a short bus ride from downtown Salt Lake City to the start, we set off  down the trail meandered along a ridge looking down at the suburbs of Salt Lake. Before the sun had even had a chance of rising, we made a sudden turn to the left and there was a trail that looked like it went straight through the trees into the sky. This was the beginning of a nearly 5000 foot climb  over 5 miles. It was slow going and very steep in most places. Eventually, the trail left the trees and I could see where the climb likely ended, and it was so far away. The tiny figures of those ahead of me showed where the trail snaked up the slope.

After 2 hours I reached the top and began a steady descent down a dirt road that skirted next to 2 radar domes, which I assume were for the airport. I expected the climb to be long and hard. I felt good since I was able to stay relaxed and not strain myself going up since this was so early in the race.  The descent was long and I expected the first water station to be coming any time. A first sign of trouble was that I was being passed regularly by other runners on this portion. I wasn't moving as quickly as I probably needed to.

I reached the water station after what seemed way too long and after I had emptied my 2 liter bladder pack. Arriving at the table, one of the volunteers calmly stated, "We're out of water. They are bringing some  if you want to wait or it's 5 miles to the next station if you think you can make it." To say I was furious would be an understatement. How a race of this stature runs out of water at the very first stop is beyond comprehension but there I was. I felt I didn't have the time to spare waiting so I put my pack back on headed off, cursing.

The next 5 miles had ups and down as we went in and out of canyons. Maybe due to the lack of expected water or, more likely, due to my declining motivation over the past months, I began to slip into a negative place. I realized that this wasn't going to happen based on my pace, my attitude and the throbbing pain in my left big toe that had kicked a rock firmly at mile 6 of Leadville 3 weeks before.

This next aid station was uneventful. I got my water refilled, ate and quickly moved on. There was still a chance but it was not looking good. It was only 17 miles and I was feeling like mile 70 already. Not good. By the time I rolled into the station at 26 miles, I decided I was done. There was no point in struggling to a finish that wasn't going to happen. I could end it early and get a good start over on my training for next year. However, when I tried to quit at this station they told me it would be hours before I could be driven out and it was 4.4 miles to the next stop. Then he pointed to a peak off in the distance and said you get there and then descend into the next station. I didn't want to but I set off.

This next section ended up being the easiest of any so far and began to have me questioning my decision. I was almost an hour ahead of the cutoff but over 11 hours to do 31 miles means I would have to go at a faster pace in the next 69 miles. That was not going to happen. Another massive defeat at the hands of a western mountain ultra.

Now what? There is a slight feeling of humiliation since I boldly put this attempt at the Grand Slam out there publicly and have failed in 3 out of 4 of the races. Not a very good showing at all. A major dose of humility is what I got and that can (and I hope will) be a motivator going into the future. Like I said above, after Arrowhead I felt I could finish any race I started. Confidence is a good thing but I have learned it can also lead to complacency. This led to allowing myself to slack in training with the belief that since I had been successful in the past that I would be so in the future. This may work for a brief time but I eventually had to pay the price.

Success, however, is arbitrary. I gave myself a goal and fell short. Perhaps the true success was in the attempt. I suppose if I had finished every race I would be satisfied but I do savor the opportunity to return to each of these races and finish them, which I believe will make the finish even more satisfying. I failed in my first attempt at Tuscobia but in that failure I learned what I needed to know to get it done. When I returned this year I applied that and succeeded. In getting over the previous obstacle, I found new ones that were even more difficult but I was prepared. So when I return to each of these races, I will be ready because I feel I now know what it is I needed to know to succeed.

Ultrarunning is extremely humbling. This is one thing I love about it. There is no faking a 100 mile finish. There are no easy 100 milers, only ones that are more difficult than others. These races break you down and give you a glimpse of your true self. Often, I don't like what I find but then I have the opportunity to make changes and improve myself. I believe when we do this we also make life better for those around us.

In the end of it all, none of these things mean much of anything. All we do falls into the past and will eventually be lost and forgotten by everyone we know. The past is gone and the future is not here so finding meaning and joy in the present is all we have. I'm not going to dwell on my failures, which are many, and I'm not going to worry about the future. Next year's plans are set for the most part but all I can do is try to enjoy the work I do today.

I can reset now both physically and mentally. My body needs a bit of a rest and my mind needs to return to the place where it needs to be to get through 100 miles or more. I have had a very good 18 months of racing, even if it didn't end quite the way I wanted it to. There were many positives and, most importantly, many special experiences. This little hobby has led me to places I never would have seen and to meet beautiful people I never would have known. For all of that I am thankful, regardless of the outcome of a race.

Enough rambling for now. I have decided I will be taking a break from running for the rest of September. I plan on having a "fun run" at the St. Pat's 24 Hour Run in Indiana in October. No goal and no pressure. I have 24 hours to run as much or as little as I want. The rest of the year will be focused on working on my weaknesses prior to the 2018 schedule which will be revealed at a later date.

My Wasatch pictures: