It was 2014. Early that year, I ran my first half-marathon. Then, for the first time, I trained consistently with long runs through the summer. I started trail running. At group runs and races, I rubbed elbows with marathoners and… ultramarathoners?
I had known of marathons for a long time, but ultramarathons were new to me. I had never even heard of people running 50 or 100 miles, and there I was, all of a sudden, meeting some of them. I was surprised at how normal they seemed.
I finished my first Ragnar Trail, running my 15-mile share of the overall distance, and thought to myself, “I think I could probably do twice that, as part of an ultra team.”
And somewhere around that time, as I was stirring this soup of thoughts and ideas around in my brain, I stumbled across the movie “Finding Traction,” a documentary of Nikki Kimball’s attempt to set a new fastest known time traversing a 273-mile trail in the northeastern US.
I was riveted. I had never seen anything like it.
Over the course of her attempt, as I watched the miles and the days take their toll on her, something happened inside me that I have been utterly unable to explain to anyone who has asked why I do this. All I can say is that it happened. I watched her struggle through pain and fatigue and exhaustion, and her suffering called to me. I wanted to face something like that, to see how I would measure up against it.
That was how and when my dream to run a 100 mile race was born.
Start: Hotshots Ranch to Hart Prairie (miles 0-9.5)
It was a cool morning. Chilly for this Phoenix boy who spent all summer running in the heat, but not terribly so. Much more comfortable than the freezing-temperature start of Bryce Canyon had been several months earlier.
I was struck by how humble this race seemed compared to everything else I had been doing lately. There was a single folding check-in table with a couple of people working it. The deposit area for drop bags was just a series of black plastic garbage bags you tossed your stuff into. There was no timing mat at the start line. Heck, there wasn’t an arch or anything there, either. Just an opening in a fence that we would all run through, with a couple of signs beside it.
You never know what kind of a race you’re going to end up with until you get out there, and I think I fell in love with this one right then.
I started in spectacular form. About a hundred yards up the trail, I realized my sunglasses weren’t on top of my head where I had left them. I had been taking my hat on and off to get adjusted for the start and must have knocked them off. Crap. Good thing I noticed early enough to go back and get them. I started jogging back to the start, and it occurred to me that they might have gotten caught in the hat, which was currently hanging around my neck. I checked it, and there they were. I turned around again and started back up the trail, and laughed. This really is kind of my life in a nutshell.
Once I got that all sorted and out of the way, I actually began the race.
We started with a long, gradual climb up to about 8800 feet. It looks steep in the elevation profile the race provides, but it was a climb of about 1400 feet over about 5 miles. Which is to say: it wasn’t actually very steep. I hiked it anyway. I did not intend to do anything even remotely strenuous in the first five miles of a 100-mile race.
It was largely uneventful, but went well. The weather stayed cool, and we spent the entirety of the climb in a pine forest. When we got to the top of the climb and started descending, we went out into open meadows and the trail got rocky.
There was a brief moment of concern when some runners ahead of me became convinced we were on the wrong trail. I thought the whole thing was a little silly. The turns had all been clearly marked. Why would we have missed one?
After a quick discussion and map check, we decided that we were okay and shortly after found a landmark that had been mentioned in the race briefing. All good.
We left the trail for a forest road and continued on into the Hart Prairie aid station.
Hart Prairie to Kelly Tank (9.5-21)
From Hart Prairie, we climbed again, and this section of the trail passed near Humphreys Peak. We ran through fields, and the course connected with the AZ Trail proper, which it stayed on through the remainder of the race.
As we passed the highest point of the race and started downhill, the trail took us into an aspen forest. It was beautiful. Not quite late or cold enough in the year for their leaves to have started turning, but it seemed like they were close.
And that was when my first bad news of the day came. My right knee started hurting, with an old familiar pain.
Here is a brief history of the recurring problem I’ve had with runner’s knee.
- Even before I started running, I had problems with my knees giving me pain when descending stairs or going downhill. I could tell that it was an issue with weakness, and addressing that was actually one of the reasons I started running.
- I had a lot of knee pain when I did start running. Over time, as I got stronger, it stopped being a general/constant issue.
- After it stopped being a general issue, I would still have issues with it when it was cold. I figured out that if I spent time warming up before running, it prevented the knee pain from surfacing. Eventually, I got to where all I needed to do was start easy for a while before picking up the pace.
- After that, it seemed to be largely eliminated, with the exception of three other higher-elevation races I had done. By the end of each of those races, I had a lot of knee pain of the same sort it always used to be, but at the time, I had attributed it to other causes, mainly feeling like I went in undertrained and then ran too hard. Neither of those was the case here at this point in the race. So… I had lots of time to think about all of this, and my best diagnosis is that I had it wrong before about the other races, and there’s something about elevation that makes it flare up.
I hadn’t had an issue with my knee in months, through 20-30 mile training runs, a 52k race where I scored a new PR, and a 54-mile hike. Now I was 14 miles into a 100-mile race, and it had just checked out.
My heart sank. I started hiking downhill, occasionally jogging in stretches to see how bad it was going to be. As I feared, it got worse as I ran, and subsided when I hiked. So running downhill was now off the menu, likely for the duration of the race.
I was hiking well and could make decent time doing that (at that point I was moving at about a 15-16 minute pace), so that was just what I was going to have to do.
The aspen forest opened up into prairie, and the trail leveled off. I experimented with jogging again, to see if I could find a workable stride for the flatter stretches that wouldn’t antagonize the knee too much. I found something that seemed to be working, and got into a groove for a couple of miles.
Then I got my second bad news of the day.
For the previous 20 minutes or so, I had been looking at my watch more and more nervously. I was worried about the cutoff time for the next aid station, which I was supposed to hit at mile 21, and it didn’t seem like I was as close to it as I needed to be to make the noon cutoff there. I had done the math on the pace I needed to maintain to beat the cutoff, and I was still way ahead of what the minimum was. I knew the aid station had to be close, but I wasn’t seeing it yet. I must have gotten something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what—I had checked the required pace thoroughly.
I came to a road crossing and looked around. The trail I was following continued on the other side of the road, but there were no course markers on it. I looked up and down the road, and didn’t see course markers anywhere on it, either. I got a sick feeling in my gut, and dug out my phone to check the course map.
I was off of it. I had missed a turn, and the time was now 11:40.
I turned around and ran. I could see on the map where I’d missed the turn, but I couldn’t tell how far back it was, and from there how much farther to the aid station. My best guess was that I had to cover between two and three miles, and I had to do it in 20 minutes.
Tears of anger and frustration stung my eyes. I couldn’t believe my race could end this way, after all the work I’d done to get here, and with my friends still on their way to come out and crew for me. I pushed myself to keep running hard, even though I was tiring.
“Not like this,” I repeated to myself, over and over again as I ran. “Not like this.”
I blew into the aid station at 11:57. I had made it! But here’s the thing with aid station cutoffs in ultras—you not only have to make it in by the cutoff time, you have to make it out by the cutoff time as well.
I’ve never come into an aid station that close to cutoff before, but I’ve talked to people who have. They describe a pandemonium of aid station volunteers desperately scrambling to get the runners out by the cutoff time.
Things at the Kelly Tank aid station seemed a lot more relaxed than I was expecting. They called out my bib number as I came in, and people cheered for me. Confused, I gasped, “It’s a noon cutoff, right?!?”
“2:00,” they replied.
Kelly Tank to Cedar Ranch (21-34)
I slumped. One volunteer encouragingly told me that I’d made it by noon anyway.
Another came over and asked me how I was doing, so I told her what the last 20 minutes had consisted of. She kind of adopted me for the rest of my fifteen-minute stay there. She asked me what I needed, and I told her it was just to sit for a while. Fortunately, the drop bags were laid out on a blanket under a tree, so I went over there to get my bag and then sat in the shade. While I rested, my volunteer mom took my pack and refilled the water.
After a few minutes, I got up and went to the food table and started eating. “Mom” very nicely asked if I would be picking up a pacer later, and I laughed at that pretty hard.
“So they can make sure I don’t get lost again?” I asked.
She laughed with me and said that wasn’t what she meant. She explained that most of the 100-mile runners had crews that had met up with them, and I didn’t seem to have anyone. I assured her that I had crew as well who would be meeting up with me at the next aid station, and she said that was good (I think she was still a little worried about me). She noted my bib number and told me she’d be checking on me after the race to see how I did.
If you ever read this, volunteer lady, thank you for your help. I’m sorry I didn’t get your name.
Some of the volunteers cheered for me as I left to go begin the long stretch from Kelly Tank to Cedar Ranch. They were probably relieved to see me keep going after the show I put on for them when I got there.
It was warm now and approaching the hottest part of the day. I was very glad I’d opted to bring my boonie hat for the race, even though I think it makes me look like a gardener who’s gotten lost in the woods. It may look dumb, but it’s comfortable and does a phenomenal job of keeping my head, face, and neck cool when it’s sunny.
I hiked, and I jogged. The knee continued to decline every time I tried the jogging part, and my power run to make my “noon” cutoff had made things considerably worse on top of that.
I had too far to go still to keep trying this. The third and final piece of bad news for the day was that I was going to have to stick to hiking. The pain was getting so intense in the run stretches that it was literally taking my breath away. At that point, my overall pace for the race was just over 16 minutes per mile. If I could maintain that while hiking—and that was just about how fast I was hiking, so at the moment I wasn’t bringing the average down—I would still be able to make the cutoffs. The overall pace I had to maintain to finish on time was about 18 1/2 minutes per mile.
But… I still had 75 miles to go. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to maintain a 16 minute hiking pace for the remainder of the race. I was going to get tired and slow down. And I had big aid station stops ahead of me where I would be eating meals and changing clothes. All of those things were going to take extra time and would bring down my pace, so I finally had to acknowledge the thing that I had been pushing out of my head for the last ten miles, since the pain first flared up.
I probably wasn’t going to make it.
At some point late in the race, maybe even in the final stretch before the finish line, I was likely going to fall below the necessary pace threshold, miss a cutoff, and be pulled from the course (or finish without credit). It was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, and I choked on it for a couple of miles, trying to process everything and decide what to do.
And here, of all the things that could have done it, it was my mistakes that saved me. I remembered giving up during Zane Grey, surrendering on course and shuffling my sad way in, knowing that whether or not I made the upcoming cutoff, I wasn’t going to go back out. I thought about my earlier wrong turn during this race—how hard I’d fought back when I thought my race might get taken away from me whether or not I wanted it to be.
Without those experiences, I might have given up when I finally faced the reality of my situation. Instead, I decided what I was really there to do. Of course I wanted to finish. I desperately wanted to finish. But when I had first started dreaming my dream of doing a 100 mile race, it wasn’t the pride of a finisher’s buckle that had called to me. It was the challenge of hitting the worst wall imaginable and pushing through it rather than giving up. I’d come out to suffer and endure it. I might not be able to finish the race, but I could certainly still keep pushing and refuse to quit.
And so I quietly resolved to keep going and trying until a race official told me I was done, whether that meant being pulled from the course because of a missed cutoff, or whether that was when I finished. That was the last time I questioned what I was going to do. I pushed it all back out of my head and returned to the business of the race: putting one foot in front of the other.
In this long segment, there were two unmanned, water-only stops. Between them, Rob Krar, an elite ultrarunner who lives in Flagstaff, had set up what he called a “bonus” aid station. He had water and soda, and Popsicles, which were awesome. He and I had both done the Bryce Canyon 50k a few months earlier (he won, and I… finished it, long after he was done), so we talked for a few minutes about the race, and it was really fun to be able to chat like that with someone at his level.
I left his aid station, passed the next water station without needing to refill, and eventually came over the top of a small rise to see a beautiful sweeping vista, looking across a valley to where I would eventually reach the Cedar Ranch and Tub Ranch aid stations on the far side.
I encountered a couple of AZ Trail horse patrols between there and the Cedar Ranch aid station. The second group cheered me on and told me I was almost done, thinking I must be one of the 55k runners. I laughed to myself at that, wished just a little bit that it was true, and thanked them.
As I approached Cedar Ranch, I could see my crew waiting by the gate for me. Once they recognized me, they started cheering and calling my name. I wanted to run in to them, but instead, I kept hiking until I got there.
Cedar Ranch to Tub Ranch (34-38.5)
Cedar Ranch was a brief stop. Even though it was quick, it was terrific to see my friends and get to talk to them for a bit.
I told them about my knee and how I was dealing with it. They pushed some food at me, and I ate it. I unloaded some of the extra items I’d been packing around that weren’t necessary yet so I could travel a little lighter to the next aid station.
It was a brief whirlwind of activity. I was in and out in seven minutes.
I went out the other side of the aid station to a dirt road, turned right, and started off again. My crew cheered me on and I actually started to jog away out of “aid station exit” habit. That lasted for about a minute before my knee forcibly reminded me that we weren’t doing that right now. I resumed hiking.
I looked down where the road led and could see a small cluster of buildings ahead. That couldn’t possibly be Tub Ranch, could it? Right on the road like that? It didn’t seem that far away.
I hiked the road, made good time, and sure enough, it was Tub Ranch.
The sun started to get low as I cleared this stretch. We weren’t to sunset yet, but it was getting close.
Tub Ranch to Oil Line (38.5-44.5)
Tub Ranch was a serious stop. It would be many hours before the crew and I would see each other again, so we made the most of it.
I changed clothes and shoes to get ready for the cool night ahead. Gave myself a little sponge bath in the process. We decided to try some KT tape on the knee to see if it would help.
My crew made me spaghetti, and I ate it with a vengeance. I had told everyone I was going to be psyching myself up all day to get it, and I had been. I chased it with Dr Pepper. I ate some other stuff too, I can’t even remember what.
I had been chafing, so I applied a heaping helping of Squirrel’s Nut Butter before leaving.
I had been wondering what exactly my race position was. I was obviously near the back, but I wasn’t sure if I was actually the very back. It turned out that at that point, I wasn’t. One last runner came in behind me, and sat down in one of the chairs by the aid station table. I’m not sure what exactly transpired for him from that point, but shortly afterward, he started vomiting, noisily.
I looked over at him, and for just a moment considered that whatever he was losing kind of looked like the spaghetti I’d just eaten. I felt bad for the guy and suspected this was going to be the last of him that I saw, but I needed to get away from what was happening to him and get going.
I loaded up to head out, adding most of the weight back that I had dropped off at Cedar Ranch with a sigh, and said goodbye to everyone. I didn’t know it at the time, but Sarah had to leave after this, so I didn’t get to see her again until long after the race. Chris and Trevor would be taking care of me for the rest of the time I was out there.
I headed out, into the sunset. Literally.
The course continued to be dirt road, and remained that way for a very long time. Ranch traffic passed me occasionally, kicking up huge clouds of powdery white dust.
The sun was setting off to my left, and although I knew I probably shouldn’t be spending the time to do it, I kept stopping for pictures. It was simply beautiful out there in the golden sunset light. I was moving across a wide-open plain, and off to my right was one prominent hill. I decided that it needed a name, and so I dubbed it “Sunset Green.” (I looked it up, and its “real” name on the map is Mesa Butte. My name is definitely better. I mean seriously, “Mesa Butte”? That’s like calling it “Hill Hill.”)
As the road reached the end of the plain and began a gradual climb into some low hills, the sun finally went behind the horizon. The light shifted down to yellows and reds, and distantly off to my right I could hear gunshots. Like… so many gunshots. I read later that during the daylight hours at the Oil Line aid station, they were giving runners the opportunity to do a little target shooting if they wanted to, so it must have been them.
Full darkness fell, and the night got quiet. I wasn’t looking forward to this stretch. I’d done a 24-hour solo hike around Prescott a couple of weeks earlier, and hiking through the forest all through the night by myself had been nerve-wracking. I felt more ready to be alone in the dark than I would have otherwise, but that didn’t mean I was going to enjoy it. When I was planning my course strategy, I had expected that I’d be through this part earlier, and maybe paired up with another runner so we could keep each other company. Unfortunately, with my knee situation putting me into near-last position, that wasn’t going to happen.
So I hiked in the dark and watched for the reflectors from the AZ Trail signs that would start glimmering to me out of the night long before I could see the posts they were mounted on. After a while of that, the cows got started. I don’t know what was happening off to the west in the distance where they were hanging out, but it sounded like some kind of party. A wild, wild cattle party. They were making crazy amounts of noise, being very excited about something, and it sounded like there were a lot of them. I was glad they weren’t close.
As I started to leave them behind me, I saw a light ahead, up a hill. I couldn’t tell if it was a house or the next aid station. As I approached it, the road passed under some high-power electrical lines, and I listened to them buzz in the still night.
The lights drew closer, and I could see that it was the aid station. As I finished the last stretch to get there, a woman came out to the road and waited for me to come in.
“Are you number 45?” she asked.
Oil Line to Boundary (44.5-54.5)
I told her that I was, and asked if they’d been waiting for me.
“We’ve been waiting for you all day!” she laughed.
They offered me homemade stew with meat and potatoes, and I took it, along with some Coke. It was delicious.
I asked them if I was the last one on course. They asked if I wanted the truth, or if I wanted them to be encouraging, which made me laugh. I told them that I had a pretty good idea of the answer already, given that they were waiting for me and knew who I was. So they said yes, I was last, and then they went on to be encouraging anyway.
I didn’t spend long there, but I enjoyed their food and company immensely. As I finished the stew, they told me it had been made with elk meat that had been hunted in the unit we were currently in. How cool is that?
As I headed up the road again, leaving the station, two pairs of glowing eyes came bounding up to me out of the dark. Apparently the aid station folks had brought a couple of big dogs with them, who fortunately were friendly. I greeted them, and they went on their way. My heart started beating again.
And from there, it was a long and quiet several hours, hiking alone into the night to the Boundary aid station. The moon was bright, but only occasionally broke through the clouds that had gathered in the sky.
The night cooled off considerably by the time I got to the Boundary aid station.
Boundary to Moqui (54.5-60)
I met Trevor and Chris at Boundary and reported on how things were going (pretty much the same since I had seen them last). It was just after 10 PM, but it felt like midnight to me. Dinner consisted of ramen noodles and soup, and it wasn’t very good (note to self: you want the beef flavor next time). I ate it anyway, because I needed the calories and the warmth. Had more Dr. Pepper along with it.
I picked up my insulated jacket and put on some warm calf sleeves. It was cool, but not so much that I wanted to put on my tights yet. There was still a lot of night ahead of us, and the temperature was going to keep dropping, but I had started to think I might not need them. It did not seem like it was going to be as cold out there as it had been the last couple of years, which was a big relief to me.
Squirrel’s Nut Butter was a sponsor of the race, which was great, because it’s my preferred anti-chafing solution and they had it at every aid station, so I was able to reapply as needed at as many aid station stops as was necessary. Its one downside, however, is that it gets very hard and difficult to apply when it gets cold. For the rest of the night, using it required thawing it out in front of the aid station heaters.
The combination of the cooling temperature and the 55 miles on my legs made this the first aid station departure that was really slow and stiff. It took a while to walk that off and start moving normally again.
They were all like that from this point on.
The best thing about the Boundary aid station is that you can pick up your first pacer there, and from there on out, you get to have company. I picked up Trevor, and he paced me for remainder of the race.
As we got started, we did a thorough assessment of my condition, tested how much I could run (still very little), and settled in for a long hike. The trail stayed fairly level (if a little rough and rocky) for several miles, most of the distance to the Moqui aid station.
We talked about TV shows, books, movies. I taught Trevor about the way spider and insect eyes will reflect your headlamp’s light if you watch for them. I see them constantly, and he had never noticed them before. He didn’t believe me until I was finally able to point some out to him quite a few miles further down the trail.
As we made our approach to Moqui, we saw that little candle lanterns had been set out along the trail to lead us in. They were beautiful and friendly-looking. It was a nice touch from the volunteers working that aid station.
Moqui to Russell Tank (60-67.5)
I had some Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Coke at Moqui. This was a stop that didn’t have crew access, so we resupplied from what was available. We chatted for a bit with the volunteers, and they were great.
You guys, the people who volunteer to work aid stations in races like this are just the best people in the world. I try to make it a point to always thank them for being there, but it feels so inadequate. I’ve got to figure out a better way to try and convey how much I appreciate the good they do for us dumb runners while I’m out there talking with them.
The way out of Moqui was back the way we came in, retracing the trail back to where it forked, and hanging a left on our way to Russell Tank. From here, we started a gradual climb that continued off and on for about the next 15 miles, through Russell Tank and beyond.
We took another stab at running, and surprisingly, at this point it didn’t seem so bad. It wasn’t that my knee was any better, it just seemed like the rest of my body was sore enough by that point that the knee pain didn’t stand out as much as it had earlier. So we ran a few stretches. Not a lot, but more than I had done in about the last 30 miles.
As we moved through the forest in the dark, we encountered a big water tank, with “Russell” spray-painted on the side. Well, now we knew where our next aid station had got its name. Curiously, we still had several miles to go from that point before we got to the actual aid station.
There’s not a lot to say about what happens during the late-night hours of an ultra. There’s very little to look at in the dark, so you chat about anything you can think of to pass the time, and if you don’t have a real person to talk to, you might just talk out loud to yourself (or maybe I’m the only one who does that).
Anyway, the main goal becomes keeping anything eventful from happening. You just want to get through it as smoothly as possible, and that was what we did.
It’s also worth mentioning that this was the stretch where we passed the 100k mark, and thus the farthest I had ever gone before in a single event.
Russell Tank to Hull Cabin (67.5-80.5)
Something I haven’t mentioned is that at each of the aid stations we passed through since Boundary, we were leaving other runners behind. We didn’t pass anyone out on the trails until later in this stretch, but we were passing people at the aid stations. There were one or two at Boundary. One at Moqui. And now there were two more at Russell Tank that we also ended up leaving behind.
Chris got my food ready, so I had more spaghetti and had Dr. Pepper, and it still all tasted good. There was so much that had gone out of my control during the race, that I was going to make sure I kept on top of the things that I could control, like eating.
I needed to reapply some more Squirrel’s Nut Butter, and in the process of thawing it out in front of the heater, I melted part of the sleeve of my jacket. That made me pretty sad when I discovered it later.
When we left Russell Tank, we ran a lot more. I introduced Trevor to one of my recent favorite ultra mantras, a quote from Once a Runner: “Runners deal in discomfort.” I told it to myself a lot through that night and the next day.
We were still climbing, but it was less consistent than the previous stretch had been. We had stretches of ups, of flats, and of downs. The downs were still out for me for running, but the flats and gentle ups were fair game, and we took advantage of them.
In this segment, the AZ Trail approaches the edge of the Coconino Rim and runs alongside it for a while. Most runners who come through here are moving faster than we were, so they do this stretch in the dark. If you’re moving at the back of the pack like we were, however, you might get really lucky and see an amazing deep red and orange sunrise, just at the point when the trail passes closest to the edge of the rim. We spared a couple of minutes to stop and appreciate it.
It makes my heart ache with gratitude to think about it now. Sometimes struggles and difficulty pay off in unexpected ways, and I felt like this race had been handing out both the struggles and the payoffs left and right.
Tour helicopters started not long after sunrise. We thought maybe they were search-and-rescue at first, but then they just kept coming, and eventually we figured out what they were.
When we left the trail singletrack to go down the long and steep dirt road descent to Hull Cabin, I ran sideways for a while because it didn’t hurt my knee. Then I got wobbly and almost ran right off the side of the road and decided that was enough. Trevor enjoyed the performance.
Hull Cabin to Watson Tank (miles 80-88)
I hadn’t planned for breakfast. My original projection for arrival had us getting to Hull Cabin when it was still dark, and I had figured that soup again would work at that time. Soup sounded terrible to me at that point, and miracle Chris produced oatmeal for me from somewhere. It was perfect. I ate that, had some more soda, changed shoes and shirt again in preparation for warmer temperatures, and we were off.
Through the night, we had managed to stay ahead of the race cutoff times in relative comfort. I had come into the Boundary aid station about an hour and 45 minutes ahead of the midnight cutoff, and we came into Russell Tank with about the same margin. We were closer to the cutoff at Hull Cabin, coming in an hour ahead of it (and leaving with 30 minutes to go), and that was the last cutoff we had to worry about before the final one at the finish line. There was a little relief about not having any others, and a little concern because we had lost time by the time we got to Hull Cabin.
Once we got to the top of that lousy climb back up the rim from Hull Cabin and got on trail again, we felt like we should run more and actually make up some time if possible, so that was what we did. Overall we were feeling comfortable that we would make the final cutoff, but if we could keep it from being close (and thus worrying about it), all the better. I ran the longest sustained stretches I’d done since my knee started hurting. We had some good, clear, non-rocky stretches of trail and took advantage of them.
Watson Tank to Reed Tank (88-97.5)
We had friends working the aid station at Watson Tank, and it was great to see them and visit for a bit. They jumped in like they were part of the crew and ran around grabbing stuff for us, whatever we asked for. I had a PB&J sandwich and more soda.
Knowing we were going to start getting a lot of sun in this final stretch of the race, I started looking around for sunscreen. Trevor had some in his kit that he offered to me, which turned out to be under pressure from elevation changes. It exploded all over me, so I had all the sunscreen I’d ever wanted.
I don’t think I even sat down at this aid station—it wasn’t a conscious decision, but it was probably a good one. When we left, it seemed to be less of a painful and creaky start than the last couple had been.
It was a huge relief to be heading out onto this stretch, which was basically the last one of the race. We had 12 miles to go to finish, and we seemed to be good on time.
About an hour into it, the relief wore off and it started to feel kind of miserable. I had been avoiding the “almost done” mindset for a long time, which is easier to do when you have a bunch of aid stations to go between you and the finish line. But when you’re in the last stretch and know that the end of the segment is also basically the end of the race, it’s just about impossible to keep that out of your head.
The day warmed up, the sun shone down on us, and it was long and hot. The trail was fairly flat, but rocky and rutted in places. We started taking turns imagining that rocks and fallen trees we could see in the distance were vehicles or buildings, and thus the Reed Tank water station, which would mark the start of the final 2.5 miles of the race. We talked at some length about hallucinations and decided that being wishfully mistaken wasn’t the same thing as hallucinating outright. They really did look like man-made structures at a distance.
We were mostly hiking through this stretch, but there was a point when we decided that we needed to make up some more time. We weren’t sure exactly how far we still had left to go, so we ran again. Once we felt comfortable, we resumed hiking. That was the last time I ran in the race. The pain equilibrium I’d had earlier was gone again, and by now my whole right leg was in agony.
Finish: Reed Tank to Tusayan IMAX (97.5-100)
We finally made it to Reed Tank. Because of the way the last couple of miles of the course loop around, friends and family can get between Reed Tank and the finish line via a short walk, so everybody that was out there for us was there: Kris, Chris, and Rachel. I hugged Kris quickly and blew through the place. I had enough water to get me through the last 2.5 miles, and I wanted to get it over with. I went up and over a small rise in the trail…
…Only to discover a cruel end-of-race joke. We’d been going on flat ground for miles, and all of a sudden here the trail went up steep, and it seemed to go on endlessly. On my tired, wrecked legs, it felt like a 45 degree incline. In reality, it was probably about 4.5.
We climbed for a while, and then we descended for a while. We were joined by another runner who seemed content to follow us. We finally came to a gated culvert under the highway that runs through Tusayan, and the trail on the far side of it turned into a smooth asphalt path that took us back to the finish line.
That last quarter of a mile was tremendously emotional for me. I finally let myself think about the entire race, of all the distance and time it had taken, and the struggle that it had been.
Everything I had been through began to wash over me: the despair when my knee began to hurt, and the fear that I wasn’t going to make the mile 21 cutoff. The dread that settled into my gut when I realized how much of the race I was going to be hiking, and how unlikely it seemed that I was going to be able to maintain the pace necessary to make the aid station and finish line cutoffs.
The moment that I decided to just do the best I could until they pulled me off the course. How crazy it was that failures and mistakes—a DNF at Zane Grey and a wrong turn at this race—had turned out be the things I’d needed most to keep me going when I’d thought about giving up. My gratitude that I had faced my biggest challenges early and made my decision then, rather than struggling with it late in the race when I was tired and in so much pain.
And finally, the slowly dawning realization over the course of the morning that we were actually going to make in spite of everything. I had come to this race to test myself against difficulty and pain, and I had succeeded against odds that seemed overwhelming.
I reached out to Trevor and thanked him from the bottom of my heart. I owe him so much. From years of mentoring and advice to the training plan that got me to where I was, and for coming out for the race, crewing and pacing me for 45 miles. My voice broke. For the second time in the race, tears pricked the corners of my eyes.
We got closer, and the finish line came into sight. I told Trevor that I couldn’t believe I had done it, and my voice broke again.
He told me to run it in, to go in without him to have the moment to myself.
There was a small group of race staff and friends and family of the runners left on course, and they applauded for me as I came in and crossed the finish line. I went to Kris, hugged her, and then the tears did run. I was overwhelmed with everything I had gone through, and with gratitude to her for all that she had sacrificed to let me do this race and accomplish this goal.
The race director handed me my buckle, along with a medal for the 55k. He congratulated me and told me I’d earned it.
There’s a lesson here, for me, and for anyone reading this. Never give up.
Never, ever, ever.
I had three hard gut punches early in the race, and each time, it seemed like they were going to kill my race. I lost hope, but I kept going because it was all that I could do.
I went on like that for about 50 miles of the race before I finally started to feel like that we might make it after all, somewhere between miles 70 and 80.
I’m going to say that again. I did about half of this race, a distance I’ve only done three times before in my life, and all under better circumstances, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to finish it.
You just never know for sure that things aren’t going to work out—but if you give up, they for sure won’t. You’ve got to keep going to give the miracles a chance to happen.
I don’t know why I got the 55k medal, but I didn’t question it at the time… I honestly wasn’t even aware I’d got a “bonus” until Kris pointed it out.
I managed to stay upright for a few minutes more, to get some post-race pictures with my race team, and then I slowly and unsteadily (with lots of help) made my way over to the sleeping bags that had been laid out for us and collapsed into them.
It’s funny, the power that the mind has over the body. I could have kept hiking for another mile, or two, or more if it had been part of the race. But when I knew that I was finished, I could barely shuffle—much less walk—a dozen feet and through a small ditch to get to my sleeping bag.
I wrapped up in the sleeping bag for all I was worth, and I shivered anytime I was out of it. It took me a long time to realize it, but I was having a full-blown fever reaction that lasted all day and until I went to bed that night.
As we lay there trying to recover, I told Trevor that he could be honest now, and asked him if he’d been worried we wouldn’t make it. He said no, which was awesome and honestly kind of surprised me. For the first time, I told him that I had been worried. This is the kind of thing you only confess after the race, when you are done. On the course, you pack fears and doubts down and don’t talk about them. It’s easy to start into a downward spiral if you start voicing negativity.
Everyone cleaned up our “camp” around me while I laid there and kind of dozed. Trevor and Chris had to leave, and Kris eventually ran out of stuff to put away, so we packed up my bed and put it into the car. We went into the restaurant/gift shop that was nearby. In one of the restroom stalls, I changed my clothes and gave myself a sponge bath with water-soaked paper towels.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that ultras aren’t glamorous.
Kris drove us back to our AirBnB, and I slept most of the way, wrapped up in my sleeping bag. Everything in my body stiffened up into near-immobility and furious pain.
I had to get up three stairs to get into the house, and negotiating them was a perilous and very slow adventure (going up was bad; down was even worse). When I finally felt up to taking a shower, Kris had to help me in and out of the tub. My feet were still kind of dirty when I finished, because I was physically unable to wash them in any real way.
Because I knew it would help my recovery to try and keep moving, even if it was only a little bit, I “walked” to dinner that night, at a pace of roughly 2 hours per mile. Fortunately, it was very close to where we were staying.
Trevor had given me some advice about taking Ibuprofen, and I told him that I didn’t usually use it for post-race recovery. He had replied that I would want to this time, and boy was he ever right. I hit it hard, and it helped with my leg pain a lot. I slept well that night, even though my legs hurt enough that every time I moved them in my sleep, it woke me up.
By the next morning, the pain was much less fierce, and I just felt sore instead of damaged. The general soreness abated after several days, and the knee took a couple of weeks to start moving normally. It’s still not 100%, but it’s coming along, and I expect to be fully back to normal soon.
Most importantly, I feel content in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. I set a big goal that took a long time and a lot of work to achieve, and accomplishing it is an amazing feeling.
I absolutely could not have done this on my own. I owe my crew a debt of gratitude that I am never going to be able to repay. I owe my success to the experience and wisdom of those who have shared it with me over the years, and to the enthusiasm and support of those who wanted me to succeed. And lastly, my eternal gratitude goes to Kris, who had to put up with so much for me to get up to and through this race, and she did it far more graciously than I deserved.