Pacing the Wasatch 100 – Part 2

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The sun angles below the horizon as we climb. JC is ahead of me, like he has been for most of our run, and I can see by his posture that he’s feeling good. I’m relieved, because for a while he was struggling, though he never told me. I understand. Once you mention the fatigue, the pain, the doubt… you can no longer pretend it’s not there.

But now he’s feeling good. He runs up the hill, a solid pace that I’m scrambling to match. Although we share the same parents, he somehow got almost a foot of height advantage over me, and I swear it’s all in his legs. Fortunately for me, his legs were already going 33 miles before I joined him, or I would have no chance of keeping up.

As we crest the hill, we can see the Lamb’s Canyon aid station far below us. It looks like a bright little city in the darkening canyon below. It’s not fully dark, not up here, but the temperature dropped with the sun.

“Are you cold? Do you need your jacket?” he asks me.

He’s wearing long sleeves, his foolproof sunscreen, so I don’t think he’s cold, but one thing I learned in the past few hours is that this is not about me. The last thing I’m going to do is ask him to stop right now while he’s on one of the high points of this ultra-marathon roller coaster.

“No, I’m good.”

 

I met KC, my sister-in-law, earlier in the day at our staging point. The aid station at Big Mountain is so small that pacers are asked to wait at the staging area until their runner is approaching. The communication is pretty good, but pretty good for a backcountry 100 miler is not foolproof.

KC has been navigator, mobile aid station and co-planner through all of JC’s adventures. She’s also a skilled cyclist and water skier in her own right, not to mention gourmet chef and amazing mom. And probably other things that I’ll find out by accident one day.

Anyway, when word never comes that JC has reached the final checkpoint before the aid station, volunteers suggest we head up anyway. We have about fifteen minutes to cheer for strangers before we see him coming down the hill.

As we wave goodbye to family and head away from the noise of the aid station, I feel the full weight of my responsibility.

In most of my endeavors, I train and compete alone. Even if I’m with someone else, I’m focused on myself, my hunger, my pain, my thirst, my joy and misery. A month before the Wasatch 100, I helped some co-workers complete their first Spartan Race. This was an entirely new experience for me. It was all about them. I enjoyed my role a lot more than I thought I would.

But this is not the same. I’m not helping JC to experience something I have done. I’m helping him to get through something I can’t even comprehend doing. Ever. Running the Wasatch 100 is a huge endeavor and, of course, the welfare of co-workers isn’t the same as the welfare of my brother. So I worry for a bit, but we fall into a pace and I start to relax.

We climb through old forest, then drop for a while through some meadows. Sometimes we pass runners, sometimes runners pass us. Whenever this happens, my brother starts chatting them up like old friends. Just like my dad would do. The most I can usually muster on the trail is a nod or a good mornin! but here he is, dozens of miles in, having full conversations. One runner he seems to know pretty well. After they finish their conversation and the man heads up the hill ahead of us, I ask JC, “do you know him?”

“Yeah, his name is Rupert* I met him a few miles back.”

(*totally made up name)

Of course! Your old buddy from mile 20!

If you think people can’t change, you are wrong.This tall person running along in front of me used to be an introvert. He also used to be pretty lazy. Both of us were, really. We could waste an entire day trapped in the house avoiding the chores that would have earned our freedom. I would say he’s no longer lazy. I don’t know what happened.

We reach Bald Mountain and I warn him about the tiny horned toads on the mountaintop. He scoops one up to show me, which wouldn’t be that impressive in normal circumstances, but he’s got a lot of miles on his legs. As kids, we spent a lot of time in the summers hunting for lizards and snakes in the brushy hills around our home. I guess he never forgot that lizard-scooping technique from so many years ago.

After we come off of Bald Mountain, we drop for a while, then climb to a ridgeline. We’ll follow this rolling ridgeline for a few miles until we reach an aid station. Somewhere along this section, I notice some tension in his posture, his head drooping a little. He asks me to lead for a while. I lead until we reach the aid station, set in a field of long golden grass. He doesn’t chat much with the volunteers. I get him some broth and he sits in a folding chair. He starts talking to another runner, which makes me feel better, but he also starts looking a little too comfortable. I give him a time limit, which he honors, and we head off again.

For the first time, the trail is wide enough to run side by side. It’s also a long uphill and we walk most of it. We talk a lot. We talk about our kids and our grandkids. He’s wearing a wristband with a bead symbolizing each of his, his good luck charm. We talk about our mom and how proud we are of her. Her mother feared many things, and our mom pushed beyond all those fears, adventuring far beyond her comfort zone. We can probably blame her for the crazy things we do.

Then we’re back to single track, and a final push uphill before the course drops to the next aid station. The sun is starting to set. We pass a few runners and he’s chatting them up again, back to his old self. I’ve never run as far as he is running today (and tomorrow) but I’ve run long enough to know that the bad times always end. So do the good times, but you don’t think about that. Now he’s feeling good. We run down some switchbacks into a dark canyon. We put on our headlamps and I follow him and his light, regretting the baseball cap that is serving to block most of my own headlamp.

I ran this section twice while training, and twice I got lost. JC doesn’t. In the dark, 45 miles in, he takes the correct turn. We make our way up a gravel road to the noise and lights of the aid station. We see a single headlamp, someone standing outside the tent.

My husband, B.

He hugs us and leads us into the tent where he has already retrieved JC’s drop bag.

After a few minutes with the two of them, I have to leave. KC has come to pick me up, and parking at the aid station is not allowed. KC will take me to my Jeep and I will drive to the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon where I plan to sleep for a few hours in the back of the car until it’s time to wait for them at the aid station.

JC is my big brother. He’s older, smarter, and much more athletic. But as I climb a little rise to meet KC, I worry for just a minute. I hope this all goes well, I hope he achieves what he wants. But I know, that at least for this next leg, he’s in good hands.

 

B and JC reach Brighton Ski Resort in the darkest part of the morning. Their leg included cold temperatures, ridiculous vertical, disrespectful foxes and adorable burrowing owls. Oh, and a grilled cheese sandwich, but only for B.

When they reach the aid station, JCs next pacer has not arrived. It turns out there is a marathon going down this canyon on the same day, and runners are coming up the canyon on buses as KC tries to get to the aid station with the pacer! We did not know about this. B can’t continue pacing because he has to get to work. I can’t continue pacing because I’m basically in jammies. We send him off into the dark almost alone (Follow that guy! Go!) and then we just feel bad as we hurry down the canyon minutes before it’s closed for the marathon. His pacer does arrive at the aid station, and with his fresh legs, he’s able to catch JC. They make it to an aid station around the 75 mile mark, but just over the cutoff time.

This, of course, doesn’t dull my pride at all. Or his determination. He is currently training for a 100 miler in Bryce Canyon. My schedule won’t allow me to join him, but rest assured my heart will be there with him for every step.

Pacing the Wasatch 100 – Part 1

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It’s a beautiful September afternoon and we’re somewhere on the top of the world.

“Did you see the horned toads up here on your training run?”

“No,” my brother answers.

“They’re all over here. I hope you didn’t step on any.”

He starts to scan the trail as he runs, and after a minute he stops suddenly and steps off the trail, reaching down to scoop something off the ground.

He turns to show me, a tiny horned toad no bigger than a nickel. It’s exactly the same color as the dust of the hilltop.

“How did you do that?” I ask him, “If I tried to bend down right now I’d probably stay down, and I’m only a few miles in.”

He’s about forty miles in. He shrugs, puts the little lizard back on the ground and starts running.

 

After decades of ridiculous (in my opinion) athletic accomplishments, my brother JC has decided to turn his attention to trail running. His background in running, cycling and triathlon is strong enough that he starts big. The Wasatch Front 100, to be precise. He completes Moab’s Red Hot 55k in February and the Buffalo Run 50 mile on Antelope Island in March. Then he focuses on the Wasatch course, running each segment at least once as part of his training.

He asks my husband and I to each pace a segment with him.

I’m excited about doing this, but very worried. I am The Trail Snail. I’m not fast. I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize a successful race.

After forcing JC to promise, over and over, that he will leave me on the trail if I’m holding him up, I begin my own training.

My training consists of my usual training, plus completing the leg that I will pace so that I know just what to expect. If there is an easy segment of the Wasatch 100, I got it. Maybe there are more beautiful sections, but I don’t see how.

My husband drops me off at the top of Big Mountain and heads to work. It’s early morning, and I’m in completely unknown territory, armed with maps and a cell phone in case the maps fail me. If the cell phone fails me… well, I just won’t think about that.

I start out in thick old forest. The sun is up, but the sunlight can’t quite make it to the forest floor. It’s a little misty and eerie. Quiet.

“The forest is quiet,” she whispers, “too quiet.”

Oh. Sorry.

Within minutes I come face to face with a beautiful buck. I’m not sure who is more startled, but he vanishes before I can even think to take a picture.

Over the next couple of miles, the forest opens up. Tall old pines give way to meadows and quaking aspen. At one point, a tree has fallen across the trail at just about eye level. JC is much taller than me, so I make a mental note to be sure he doesn’t run into it. I duck under it, but not quite far enough, and I take an ear-ringing blow to the top of my head. I sit down for a minute and wonder if anyone in the world but me could have managed that.

The trail traverses a little below a ridgetop for a while, crossing it now and then, and then climbs to the top of Bald Mountain. Bald Mountain is pretty bald, as the name suggests. There are no trees, just scrubby grass and sage. This is where I start to see horned toads. This is also where the sky starts to darken. Just a little. Not too bad.

Now the trail is like a roller coaster. Climb a hill, drop down. Climb a hill, drop down, all following a ridgeline.

One range over, the clouds have become serious. It’s what I call a Jacob’s Ladder storm. If you’ve heard the song of that name by Rush, you will know exactly what I mean.

At first I try to ignore the flashes of lightning and the booming thunder. It’s still far away. I’ll be off this ridge long before it makes it clear over here.

Actually, it doesn’t take long. At all. I see lightning… one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred… I make it to twelve before the thunder comes. Good. No problem.

I run as fast as I can over the next hilltop and head downhill. Lightning… one-one hundred, two… HOLY S*%T!

I drop to my toes, wrap my arms around my knees and huddle as low as I can, careful not to let anything but my shoes touch the ground. I don’t know if that really works, but I am alive, so… maybe? The storm hits me seconds later and pummels me for a few minutes. The thunder surrounds me, becomes part of me, vibrates through my bones and chatters my teeth.

Then it begins to move away. The rain continues, but when you’re already soaked, it really makes no difference. I drop from the ridgetop onto an area covered in long yellow grass. I find a rough sign on the ground that makes me think this is the future aid station. At this point I get kind of lost and take what appears to be a really overgrown dirt road. There is a spring at the bottom of the valley ahead, so I just run until I find that and get my bearings from that point. The rain has completely stopped and mist rises from the valley floor as the August sun resumes its dominance.

I follow a pole line, as instructed on my maps, until I reach a turnoff. I gather, from the instructions my brother printed from the race’s website, that this turnoff is easy to miss in the delirium of the race. Runners that have already been training have been kind enough to thoroughly mark the turn.

The turnoff leads into a tangled forest. The Wasatch 100 runners work on all the trails before the race, but I think they haven’t reached this area yet. Vegetation crosses the trail for the first mile. I can’t see the trail. I can’t even see my feet, so I look far ahead, following what appears to be the trail. It is a strange sensation.

I don’t fall. I’m quite proud of this.

I climb one last ridge and I can hear the freeway below me. Hmmm… I don’t like that. The trail drops down some switchbacks to a ravine that runs parallel to, but lower than, the freeway, so I can’t hear it anymore. You would never know it was right there. I lose the trail, pull out my instructions and try taking an uphill trail that puts me onto a frontage road. Nope, this isn’t right. I bushwhack back down, lose my sunglasses to a grabby tree, and leap over a little stream. As I land, I see deep, giant moose tracks.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all wildlife, but I prefer moose at a safe distance.

I find the trail and continue running. The trail is narrow and winding and I expect to see a moose at every turn.

I make it through without a moose encounter, manage to not take the wrong turn into a golf course, and climb out of the ravine to the freeway exit where we had dropped off my car that morning.

On race day, this will be a bright, bustling aid station. This will be the spot where I hand my brother over to my husband.

Unless he has to leave me on the trail.