Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Wasatch 100 (2013)

Hanging around at the Wasatch start this year, I was struck by just how warm it was at 5:00 in the morning. In 2010, it had been a chilly start to the race with a good covering of crusty frost coating the dirt and shrubbery over the course of the first 20 miles.

Heat, indeed, would be the story of the day in 2013.

With four miles of rolling Bonneville Shoreline Trail taken care of, and a good sweat lining my brow, I knew it was time to get serious about building a gap on Ian. With 4,000 feet of climbing to the top of the wonderfully named Chinscraper and the subsequent contour trail that winds its way along the upper ridgeline of the dramatic eastern border of the Salt Lake Valley, I put into effect the basic plan I had been contemplating for a couple of weeks: Run the entire climb, get a gap, grow it, hold it. 

Popping over the top of the eastern summit ridge of Chinscraper, I snuck a glance back down the summit bowl and saw Ian a good ways below, maybe five minutes below. I didn't feel like my effort had been exuberant, so I was pleased with the state of play after two and a bit hours of running. 

Topping out on Chinscraper: Lane Bird
The section that follows is one of my favorite on the entire Wasatch course. The trail up here clearly doesn't see much action, or - if it does - the mountain mahogany that is trying to reclaim the trail is simply a stronger presence on the mountain than the humans trying to beat a path. In either case, the ribbon that wends its way across the top of the Salt Lake City watershed is pure, skinny joy. The trail flips occasionally over to the western side of the ridge offering fine views of the valley below, but spends most of its time on the eastern side offering commanding views of the megalopolis of the Salt Lake Valley below, just as its inhabitants are beginning to stir for the day.

Like all good things, the trail eventually comes to an end, giving way to jeep track and then full-on groomed dirt road. The final few miles down to the Francis Peak aid station at mile 17 are undoubtedly the fastest of the whole course. Glancing back over my shoulder, I could see Ian a good ways back as I rolled into Francis. This would be the last time I would see him - or any other racer - all day. 

I ran with a dog for a good two miles on my way to the jungle. At first I tried to shoo him away, but eventually gave up, realizing that the herding instinct was strong in this one. The dog accompanied me through the rough jeep roads to my junction with the dusty trail that connects to Bountiful B (mile 24). Three years ago, this section had been lush with free-flowing creeks. This year everything appeared dead, the creeks were barely moving and the 'trail' was ankle deep in dust. 

And the mercury was rising.

Photo: Derek Lytle, Competitor Mag.
The road was long to Sessions and glances over my shoulder confirmed that I had a good lead, with Ian nowhere to be seen, something of a surprise as my splits were coming in a couple minutes slower than in 2010 and my pace seemed reasonable. Out of Sessions, after filling my 8oz Isomeric handheld with a fresh mix of diluted EFS Liquid Shot, I found the only mud hole on the whole course and took a headlong bath, somehow slipping and then super-manning through the boggy mess. I was quite literally covered head to toe in stinking Wasatch mud, with nary a creek to be found to wash it all off. 

Halfway up the ensuing climb, I went to take a nip of EFS only to find that I'd lost the cap to my bottle in the fall. I had a mild moment of panic at the thought of going the next hour without fuel, but then reassured myself that I'd gone a whole lot further than that in the past on nothing but fumes. Fortunately, the ridge running through this section is quite fantastic and it offered up a good antidote to the moisture-sucking mud that was rapidly forming a crust on my arms and legs. 

I was able to wash a bit at Swallow Rocks, first with Gu Roctane drink before being told I had the wrong jug, and then with water, but they were a remote aid station and had limited water, so it wasn't until Big Mountain that I could truly get some of the grime off. Luke Nelson did the honors and gave me a bush shower to remember. Bottles exchanged, I was off with my pacer and all-around fantastic guy Jeremy Humphrey

We were off in search of the Wizard - the Wizard of the Wasatch. 

The Wizard.
He had been there in 2010, and I knew he'd be there again this year, right on top of his perch at Pence Point. I called out to the Wizard, he responded by name, "Nick Clark?" 

And like that I'd received my blessing. I knew from that point on that I was going to win the race, but of course had no idea by how much.

Following the dusty road to see the Wizard: Photo: Wizard of the Wasatch.
I needed to beat Ian by 69 minutes in order to lay claim to the fastest cumulative time across the four races that make up the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, but quite honestly that had become very much a secondary goal for me in the weeks between Leadville and Wasatch. In the moment, my only concern was to bring home a second career win from the mighty mountains surrounding Salt Lake.

Jeremy occupied me with tales from Idaho: big game hunting and climbs in remote locations. We plotted future plans together, with a promise to next year meet between McCall and Fort Collins for a run at the wonderfully isolated high point of Wyoming, Gannet Peak, in the Wind Rivers.

We searched in vain for the spring that might have helped take the edge off the heat through the inferno-like Alexander Springs section of the course, but eventually gave up on our fools' errand. The Wasatch was parched. Lucky for me there was plenty of ice at Lambs Canyon, the halfway point of the race. I lingered, really trying to get my core temperature down, and also delaying the inevitable need to keep moving. I would spend a massive 53 minutes in the Wasatch aid stations trying to get calories in and cool off. 

Predictably enough, the altitude and raging heat had done a number on my stomach, and calories were now going down at not much more than a trickle. Just a mile up the road on the way to the next trailhead, I couldn't resist a waterhole I'd spied in the decently running creek and wallowed like a pig in mud for a minute or two. Refreshed, we continued the jog up to the trailhead and quickly bopped our way over to the Mill Creek side for the long road grind up to Upper Big Water. 

I'd run all of this in 2010 and was determined to do the same this year. With the exception of a few minor grunters we did indeed jog out the stretch to Upper Big Water, but I could feel a bonk coming on, having not really fueled since Lambs. Five Oreo cookies, some oranges, some Coke and too many minutes later, and I felt like it was time to get going again.

There are big game trails all over the Wasatch making it something of a hunter's paradise, with the section of trail up to Desolation Lake and Scotts Bluff holding more than perhaps anywhere else on course. The creek was running pretty good alongside the main trail and Jeremy was literally sniffing out the elk as we crossed path after path forged by the beasts of the Wasatch. And then, boom, 10 meters off to our right a big bull moose went crashing through the creek, fortunately up slope and away from us. 

"Big hindquarters," Jeremy remarked.

A mile or two further up the trail and I stopped to empty my guts. It came on quickly, was over quickly, and the numbing nausea subsided almost entirely.

After what, in all honesty, was a pretty pathetic climb up to Desolation Lake, the terrain opened up and we were treated to good honest alpine beauty, with exposed peaks, ridgelines and lake-filled bowls. I lingered again at the backcountry Desolation Lake aid station, trying desperately to get some calories in,  not really bothered about the gap back to Ian. I just wasn't finding any motivation in the Grand Slam record for some reason. My primary concern was in avoiding an almighty bonk or stomach episode that would prevent me from winning the race. 

The trail on the high Wasatch Ridge above Desolation Lake is a thing of beauty, both in terms of its runability and also its commanding views of the lake itself, juxtaposed against the sneaking views of the city thousands of feet below and the dominating awesomeness of the rugged Cottonwood Canyon peaks ahead.

The cruise down to Brighton was a good one and the road offered comfort to my legs. Again, I took an age at Brighton, enjoying some noodle soup, changing shoes and generally lingering. Karl was there whispering numbers into my ear: 34 minutes at Lambs, slowing down, 40 minutes at Scott's. Again none of it meant much to me. I was in survival mode and I knew the toughest 25 miles of the entire Grand Slam were ahead. 

Seth Wold took over pacing duties at Brighton and all of a sudden I was running with the energizer bunny. The pacer/runner dynamic at these moments can be quite comical. Here I was a beaten down shell of myself, content to just plug along at a steady enough rhythm to secure the Wasatch win, with a pacer, Seth, who was seriously geeked and ready to go break some records. 

Seth pushed me up to Sunset Pass, forcing a run where I would have hiked on every flat to rolling opportunity around Catherine's Lake. I flipped on my light at the pass and then readied for the gnar-filled descent down to Ant Knolls, racking up falls number 'lost count' and 'lost count' along the way. The pizza at the Ant Knolls aid station was good and once again I lingered. The running over to Pole Line Pass was even better and we got a seriously good head of steam going through this short stretch, but the inevitable was laying in wait.

There are many nicknames for the stretch of 'trail' between Pole Line Pass and Pot Bottom, all of them descriptive of the heinous nature of the route, the hills and the general lack of enjoyment that is to be had through here after 80 miles of tough Wasatch running. I had not so long ago asked Seth to give me some head space and he obliged, which in turn allowed me to find excuses not to run sections that I should have. I fell constantly through here, feeling totally drained and ready for the race to be done. We did the Dive, we did the Plunge, we roller-coastered the Seven Sisters and finally hit some runnable trail on the way down to Pot Bottom. Never have I been more grateful to come into an aid station. 

More lingering, and then it was delightful groomer forest road for much of the last eight miles to the finish. I heaved the contents of my Pot Bottom stop for good measure a mile from the aid station and then got my head down to finish out the long descent into the finish.

Seth asked me through those miles what feelings I had about winning, and quite honestly I was pretty numb about the winning part and more excited just to be done. It had been a very long summer, and the Wasatch Front 100 was just a tough, tough way to finish it out on a historically hot day for the race. Fortunately, I felt a million times better at the Wasatch finish than I did at Leadville, so I was able to shower and then go about the process of rehydrating and getting calories in. 

I was soon able to reflect a little on the win and felt entirely at peace with my summer of racing. The win felt good and I was truly excited for Ian's new standard across the four races that make up the Grand Slam. I had no regrets. The aid station stops were necessary and allowed me to keep moving forward. I could have been quicker for sure, but at the end of the day I don't think quicker stops would have changed the series outcome. 

Pic: iRunFar 
I shan't go on too much more with this report, but I do feel the need to thank everyone who has helped me along the way this summer, beginning with my wonderful wife, Dana, and children Alistair and Stella, who have supported me unquestioningly the whole way.

And my pacers/crew:

Western States: Bob and Sue Gerenz, Rob and Christy Barnard (or at least soon-to-be Barnard), and The Wesir.

Wesir, Christy, douchebag, Bob, Sue, Rob.
Vermont: Fred Abramovitz and Jim Garcia

Former Vermont winner, Jim Garcia coming into mile 90 ahead of me at Bob's Aid Station.
Leadville: Dana, Alistair, Stella, Slush, Hinterberg, Wesir and Mindy Clark(e)

photo: Rob Timko.
Wasatch: Jeremy Humphrey, Seth Wold, Rick Robinson.

With Jeremy Humphrey. Photo: WOWASATCH
Thank you all. 

And finally, I have to give a huge shout out to Abby McQueeney Penamonte who asked way back in November if I would help her get ready for The Slam. It has been a fun journey, and Abby has been a constant source of inspiration for me the whole way. She is one very tough and determined lady.

For the record, Abby is now fourth all time among GS women, and was third fastest overall this year, coming in well under 100 hours: a huge summer.

I even got to hold the trophy.
And congratulations of course to all the Grand Slam finishers this year. The series is no joke. You are all amazing.

The Grand Slam record has been tightened, but there are still hours out there for someone to snag with the perfect summer. There's an hour at least at both Western States and Vermont, not much if anything at Leadville, and a good hour and a half at Wasatch. I'm hoping somebody is plotting already...records are there to be broken.  

Enjoy it - the Grand Slam is quite the trip!


  1. More great stuff, and a good rainy week to recover and write.
    Surely a memorable summer, but also looking forward to having you back for training, local races, and shenanigans instead of all those dumb big races.

    1. Umm, for internet posterity if nothing else, "a good rainy week to recover and write" was before the rain reached biblical proportions.

      The destruction and loss of life, property, roads, and land access sucks.

    2. Goes without saying, Mike. Just spoke to a ranger up at Horsetooth who was of the opinion that 34 may not be fully operational for two (2) years. Drake, he says, has essentially been flattened. So sad on so many accounts.

  2. Nick, great report. I've read a few write-ups from this year and it seems everyone went through that 82-92 mile section at a snail's pace and felt like death.

    Nice work out there. If people in general gave a crap about ultras they'd make a film about it.

  3. Great summer Senor, great job! Looking forward to getting on the trails with you in the near future. Will be great to catch up and you can help whip me into shape before BS!

    1. Senor - ready to roll when you are, although I'm assuming guard duty is going to be keeping you busy right off the bat. Talk soon!

  4. Great job done !!!
    Congratulations !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Bye !

  5. Congrats on the win, Nick! I just brewed a batch of Black IPA, wish you lived closer ;-)

    1. Blimey - me too. You should come up for Chubby Cheeks this year. Your beer is always welcome, Steve.

  6. Fantastic stuff Nick! Congrats!

  7. Thanks for writing the story of your race, Nick.
    Honored you think that a sighting ensured the win.
    Appreciate the inclusion of a coupla my pics for illustration.
    Much respect

    1. Robert - thanks so much. It was a pleasure to see you out there in 2010 and just great to see you again this year. Thanks so much for the great pics. Keep on keepin' on!

  8. Thank you for the opportunity to witness history in the making. You put on a master class of steady and patient suffering out there. Anyone who wonders how a person could be so solid when everything is crumbling and their body is shutting down- can just read the past 4 years of this blog- it's all right there. All that grueling work, dedication and sacrifice and a willingness to share your knowledge has created a legacy that has inspired our generation...a blueprint to competency in ultra running. Congratulations, Nick. Keep showing us the way.

    1. Wow - thanks for the kind words Jeremy. You're an inspiration to many yourself. Tear it up at the Bear!

  9. Good running and enjoyable report, as always. Love the 'lost count' falls and that you held the trophy. Congrats on what I'm sure is a memorable summer. Enjoy your peak-baggery