The UTE 100
Run Bum Tours currently only has one race in Utah, and the RD really picked a spectacular setting for this “deep end of the pool” 100 mile ultra marathon. The UTE 100 takes place in the La Sal mountains, tucked into the southeast corner of Utah and visible from the red rock expanses of Moab, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and a great many other parts of the state. This race is no joke, as evidenced by the 40 hour cutoff. The start is nice and early, 3am, to try and avoid thunderstorms which develop so often in the afternoon. Starting at about 7,500 feet, the race rarely drops below that elevation. It averages over 9,000 and tops out at over 12,000. I believe this aspect of the race is the cause of most of the difficulties experienced on course. I’d guess that this course is about 75% single track, with the rest being dirt roads of varied quality and a three mile stint of asphalt. But this is bound to change, as the RD is already foreshadowing big course changes for 2020. Yes, it is a HARD race. But as you will see here, it is oh so worth the effort.
The Rock Stars
Before I go on, I must introduce you to my amazing and invaluable crew. Coming back from the 2018 debacle are my lovely wife Kristin, as well as good buddies and training partners Hans and Megan. Hans and Megan both made the trip last year as well, and I dropped before Hans even got to run with me. It was beyond disappointing. Finally, in the role of nonessential personnel, is Dara. Ha! All jokes aside, Dara was the perfect icing on a damn fine cake!. I believe that a solid crew and pacers are critical to success, they do everything. They haul the cooler full of cold beverages and tasty food, they cook the ramen, they tend the blisters, they apply sunscreen, they drive, they wait, they drive some more, hopefully they nap, and perhaps most importantly they contribute to a positive mental game filled with laughs, hugs, and gratitude throughout the event. I will not attempt an event of this magnitude without a rock star crew.
Why do we do these things, it’s a question that is commonly asked of ultra runners and endurance athletes. Joe Rogan interviewed Courtney Dauwalter, and he was trying to figure out what her demon was. He couldn’t find one. Similarly, I really don’t feel like I have a demon to excise through self punishment. No addiction. No PTSD. No broken family. I had trouble formulating my own answer to this question. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from moving on my own power through beautiful and challenging landscapes. Sounds simple enough, but is it enough to push me through the mental and physical challenges that are sure to arise over the course of a one hundred mile event?
It was only very recently that I was listening to a podcast which framed my own perceptions very well. This life we each live, it’s a story. We’re the author, and while we certainly are not in control of every single antagonist and protagonist that is introduced, we control a lot of the plot. An ultra marathon is in its own way both an antagonist and a protagonist. At every step it presents us with an opportunity to fail. To quit. To succumb to the fatigue or the pain, the nausea or the blisters. At regular intervals you come across aid stations, with people who came in cars down bumpy dirt roads. They can just as easily put you in a car and drive you back to comfort and ease your suffering. All it takes is a momentary lapse of mental clarity and the self doubt, the self pity, the guilt, they break you and you quit. You fail. All that work, all that sacrifice, all for naught.
Alternatively, with every step you are also presented with a much rosier picture. Every step gives you the opportunity to overcome that self doubt. The opportunity to push yourself in ways you may not have known were possible until this very moment in time. The opportunity to embrace all the negative self talk that may be going on in your head and all the pain that mile after mile has started to elicit on your body, to accept it and to carry on despite it. An opportunity to take all the negatives and focus on the positive. And hell, if you can do that in this setting what is to stop you from doing that in your every day life? This race, this event, this challenge, it presents me with so many opportunities to either fail spectacularly or to grasp success and carry it forward into other aspects of life which are filled with way more obstacles than this.
This is my fucking story, and I’ll write the chapters as I see fit.
Setting the Stage
In 2018, this race whooped my ass. I struggled with almost constant nausea from about 30 miles on. I had a very challenging time getting calories down. I was trudging up the climbs and walking even the rare, gentle descents. By the time I got to Miner’s 1 aid station around mile 57, my legs were hammered. I sat down and my left quad cramped up, literally forcing me to scream. Another runner handed me a salt tab and told me to break it open and put the contents on my tongue. I complied. My crew and the aid station volunteers tried to work some voodoo on me, and indeed they did get me to exit although it took a while. The next three miles down a dirt road were torture, and the following three up an endless asphalt road were well, totally and completely disheartening. Megan had me run from one road marker to the next, then walk to the next, then repeat. All the while, I could see the string of headlamp marching along up the mountains in front of me. I hadn’t told Megan, but I knew I was done when I got to Miner’s 2 at mile 63. 19 hours, 63 miles, and I was done. There was simply no way I was going to hobble another 30 some miles. I knew soon after this DNF, that I wanted to come back in 2019 for redemption.
Bring it 2019
The race begins at Mt. Peale Animal Sanctuary, at about 7,500 feet. As soon as I registered for the race, I booked a cabin at Mt. Peale, it is about a three minute walk from the start/finish. This was a game changer, as it allowed for more sleep and less stress on race morning. It also allowed my crew to return to the cabin and sleep for many hours while they awaited my arrival at the first crew accessible aid station (mile 25). The race starts out with about six miles of running on dirt roads, some gradual climbs, rather nondescript. It’s dark right, so who cares? It is quite dusty, I recommend a buff for much of the first 14 miles in fact. Turn your light off and enjoy the darkness, as light pollution in this area of the country is very low. Shooting stars virtually guaranteed.
As you turn right and hit the single track, the climbing begins. It’s dusty, congested, rocky, and steep. Did I say steep? You climb about 2,500 feet over the course of the next eight miles. Finally arriving at AS1, La Sal Pass, at mile 14. I completed this segment in 3:43. I went into this race thinking “walk early, walk often” and I got to practice that in this first section. My tendency is to start out way too fast, but I successfully moderated my pace to AS1. Even in the dark, it was clear we were traveling through immense groves of Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides). Their ghostly outlines seemed to drift silently across the landscape, white shadows in the pitch black. Aspens have a very unique smell, musty, leathery, like something you might find in a wet basement.
An Interlude for Aspens
I’ve got to throw in a bit of ecology here. I grew up in Colorado, a state known for aspens. A state that tourists visit in the fall, specifically to see the aspen trees change colors. They are indeed a fascinating species. Some would qualify one particular aspen grove as the oldest living organism on earth. It’s in Utah, sadly not the La Sal range, and is estimated at 80,000 years old. Aspens have a rather unique trait in that one entire grove is quite commonly identical. While one single trunk may live up to about 150 years, they shoot out roots underground and then send shoots up form there. So one grove of aspens may indeed be just ONE aspen, spreading across the landscape with glacial determination whilst cloning itself. The best way to identify a group of clones is to simply watch the fall colors, one grove will turn the same color at the same time because it is genetically identical. This, in part, helps give Populus tremuloides the title of the most widespread tree in North America. But they still have one trick up their sleeve, they can photosynthesize without their leaves. While most trees rely on their leaves to produce energy, aspens do it in the dead of winter through their bark. This fact also makes them a favorite wintertime browse for deer and elk. Bad ass right? And there were some MASSIVE aspen trees on this course. I can wrap my arms around a tree that is about 19″ in diameter, and I was nowhere close to closing my fingers around some of these specimens!
Back to the Race
It’s 11 more miles to AS2, Utah Trust Lands. There is a little bit more climbing to be done here, but nothing crazy. By far the best part about this aid station is that I get to see my crew. I’d stupidly forgotten two things before the race. First, I’d forgotten to brush my teeth! Second, I forgot to grab one of my fuel containers with cooked white rice, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Stupid mistakes, but I remedied them both here. I’ve become a big fan of white rice for endurance events. It’s cheap, it’s easy to digest, and it provides me with a quick source of energy. Thanks to Hans, I upgraded to the gourmet style and had made about a dozen musubi for this event. It’s a rice sandwich, with meat or veggies in the middle, all wrapped up in a piece of dried seaweed. Many people put spam in the middle but that’s fucking disgusting. Anyhow, these were a primary fuel source all day and I was happy to get some loaded into my pack. I was in absolutely NO rush to exit aid stations. I drank coconut water, drank lemonade, made sure I was loaded with water, laughed with my crew, watched other runners and crews, and just had a damn good time. It was daylight now, and we traversed through aspen groves and wildflower laden meadows in all their glory. This course is truly striking.
Fueled up on good vibes, I continue on to AS3 which is Moonlight Meadows. This aid station is almost at 10,600 feet and is not crew accessible. I’d picked up quite a bit of trash on the way to this aid station, as there was some mileage on dirt roads. Dirt roads equal rednecks equal discarded beer cans, diapers, and all kinds of other refuse. I picked up what I could without vaccinations, and disposed of it appropriately. The RD had a trail stewardship award of $100 for the runner picking up the most trash. I won! Anyhow, I needed to really fill up at this aid station because between here and AS4 was the biggest climb which reached the highest point on the course. Manns Peak awaited, so far unseen as it is precariously tucked into the range so that from the course you don’t see it until you approach the summit.
Up We Go
The climb up Manns Peak begins with a pretty long climb up to Burro Pass. You are surrounded by massive peaks and wildflowers, so who cares?! It is here, if the weather is poor, where you have to take a diversion and skip Manns Peak. Fortunately, the weather was clear and everyone got to proceed as planned. Shortly after gaining Burro Pass you actually get to see the summit of Manns Peak abruptly rising ahead of you. Manns Peak tops out at 12,272 feet, and the climb is as relentless as it is breathtaking. The trail more or less vanishes, and this section becomes a choose your own adventure story. It’s steep, you have a lot of loose footing, and oxygen is scarce. It’s here I experienced my first real problem of the day. Somewhere around 11,000 feet I started to feel the altitude and have some nausea. I didn’t lament on it too long, figuring it would remedy itself when I started going down the other side. So I skipped some calories (I try to eat at least 100 calories every half hour, with a stopwatch reminding me every thirty minutes) but tried to keep up on my hydration. Thankfully, the descent proved to be the cure. That, along with some wonderfully chilly streams which I washed off in and soaked my hat, sun barrier, and arm warmers. The cold water was oh so refreshing and I don’t envy the runners who may have passed up this mid race luxury. AS4 is all the way down at 9,400 feet (mile 41.6), so there is a 3,000 foot drop in about four or five miles. I recall bombing this in 2018, and it rocked my world. So this year, I purposefully took it easy and coasted down. Sadly, this too was not accessible to crew and I still had over 9 miles before I could see them again. I sat down and made sure I started catching back up on my calorie deficit, refilled water, laughed with some other runners and the awesome aid station volunteers, and carried on. Incredible Manns Peak photos by Matthew Van Horn.
The Climbing is Far From Done
Getting from AS4 to AS5 (mile 51) was no small task. Immediately out of the gate was a burly, steep, rocky climb. AS5 is actually lower in elevation than AS4, but between the two was a challenge. Thankfully I knew that not only would I be able to see my crew, but I would also be able to pick up Megan as a pacer and be just a hair over half way through the race. I felt awful at Miners #1 in 2018, but with the course changes it was a little farther into the race. I took comfort knowing how much better I felt this year. After the first climb, there was a really fun downhill and then we were met with one of the sections that the RD had not managed to clear of blowdown. It was an old dirt road, littered with rocks, ruts, and nasty blowdown. It was also a long, grinding uphill. Finally topping out and starting the downhill once again, I’d caught up to another runner named John. We ran together for four or five miles and got to chatting quite a bit. This was rare for me, as I usually keep to myself at these long events. We trudged down the last mile and a half or so down one of the nastiest dirt roads I’ve ever been on. It was covered in baby heads, not runnable despite the downhill grade. Finally reaching the bottom, both of our crews were cheering eagerly and it was a damn fine thing to see. John had mentioned that he had an “elite runner friend” but I still hadn’t made the connection that freaking Courtney Dauwalter was one of the folks on his crew. She was walking a short distance from the road to the aid station and was right next to me so I said “Sure Courtney, you can have a photo with me” and proceeded to put my arm around her while Kristin snapped a shot. It was good to see our two crews were actually having a great time bullshitting as they waited for John (his first hundo) and I who were in proximity for the remainder of the race. I was relieved that my crew was having fun as they sacrificed sleep and vacation time for my dream! I noticed a blister forming on my left heel, which my expert crew taped up rapidly. More coconut water, some lemonade, some boiled potatoes, ready to rock.
Into the Darkness
As darkness loomed, I would have pacers with me for the rest of the race. First up was Megan, picking me up about 10 miles later than last year. The change to the course was almost as apparent as the change in my demeanor. My spirits were high and my body was holding up very well. We had a three mile paved downhill, followed by a three mile uphill on a dirt road to get back to this AS. In 2018, this six mile stretch broke me and seemed to take forever as Megan tried to get me to eat salt and hydrate. This year, Megan and I rolled through it laughing about the difference a year can make. We watched the sun disappear while illuminating Castle Valley in some of the best golden hour light you could imagine. The sun is a major obstacle, unyielding in its effort to ruin your day through dehydration. It was a relief to see it vanish, although I knew it would rise again before my journey was over.
After Miners #2 I was headed into the Jimmy Keen loop. This section ended the day for many people in 2018, including myself. Mercifully, the RD changed the course so that this section, the lowest and hottest in the race, would be completed by most runners at night. Instead of colossal struggle, I smashed through this section. In 2018 Megan dragged me through it, this year she was behind me and trying to figure out how I was moving so quickly. My power hike was on point, and I threw in plenty of running. We passed people, a lot of them. We passed a guy who was pulling the ol “puke and rally” trick. I didn’t stop to chat, I just moved around people and heard them asking Megan how it was I was moving so quickly. Honestly, we didn’t know the answer, but I wasn’t gonna spend time thinking about it. In the 9 miles between Miners #2 and Jimmy Keen AS, I passed 13 people. We chatted, we laughed, we gave the fuck you to cancer, and we moved past the 100k mark feeling super solid. There was one final ass kicker of a climb before reaching Hazard County again. Back up to 9,300 feet we went, and that climb seemed to take forever.
Bye Megan, Hello Hans
Getting to Hazard for the second time was awesome. It was crew accessible this time through, and my crew had a damn spread ready for me. After spending the last 20 miles with Megan, it was time to say goodbye. The race is listed as 96 miles, and I was at about 71. I was almost 22 hours into the race, it was about 1am. I was tired, but overall I felt wonderful. I knew in my head that a 30 hour finish, my 2018 goal, was well within sight. Only 25 miles left, and eight hours to do them in. I thought about telling Hans that I wanted to push for this goal. But I kept it to myself and decided to just see how things played out. I didn’t want to sacrifice a finish for a time goal, not again. Hans was beyond stoked to be able to run with me this year, and his energy was infectious. We wrapped up at Hazzard, gave our hugs to Megan, Kristin, and Dara, and continued into the night.
Racing Towards Daylight
For the next twenty miles or so, I honestly don’t remember much. I know I took the ONLY caffeine of the race, in the form of an Extra Strength 5 Hour Energy. I didn’t have any other caffeine, in any form. I know Hans and I bullshit, a lot. I remember climbs, I remember descents, I remember passing some folks and getting passed by some folks. I know we did a lot of walking, but we walked with some damn authority. There was no slacking, no lollygagging. The course was so technical that it was hard to run in the daylight, so through the night we focused on relentless forward motion, a positive attitude, and not doing anything stupid that would lead to injury or total exhaustion. We saw Hugh who’d dropped out but chose to volunteer at Trans LaSal while dressed as a unicorn. Thank you Hugh! We got flashed by some redneck who didn’t get the response she was hoping for, sorry lady, we’re tired. We inquired often as to where Melissa was, she ended up placing F1! John passed us, with freaking Courtney as a pacer. Can you ask for someone to pace you with more experience battling adversity? Probably not. As darkness faded to light, we were on one of the more daunting climbs of the last 25 miles as we climbed back up to LaSal Pass AS (mile 84), back up over 10,000 feet.
As we approached the AS, we got a spot of cell service and learned that the crew wasn’t able to find the right roads to meet us. So we were on our own, which I will admit was a bit deflating. I’d had some more challenges taking down calories and I was looking forward to some of the items in the cooler. But we didn’t let us get us down for long, I found myself wrapped up in an emergency blanket at the AS while I ate some bacon and pickles, and some Tums to settle my stomach which actually worked. I stumbled out of the AS a few minutes before Hans so he could finish fueling up, I was moving pretty slowly and knew he’d catch up quickly.
As much as I wanted to believe it was all downhill from here, I was sadly mistaken. We still had to climb up, steeply, to get through a small saddle to the trail that would eventually take us down 3,500 feet to the finish. This climb was by far the worst of them all, my legs were toast and my mind wasn’t far behind. Up we went, slowly but steadily, until finally we gained the saddle and could look down into the valley where we know the finish line awaited us. Only about 10 miles from the finish, I knew there was little that could stop us from finishing. It was a good feeling to have as we started the long, technical descent.
It seemed to take forever to get back to the dirt road which I’d run up the previous morning. And once the single track finally exited onto the road, it seemed to take decades to make it the two miles to the water only aid station. This was the last aid on course, but I didn’t need anything so we just cruised by. We had four miles to the finish and at our pace I figured it would take about an hour and twenty minutes, twenty minute miles. It was mostly flat, and smooth. Some of the easiest terrain on the course, for sure. Suddenly we were passed by a guy that looked like he was being chased by a mastodon. He was flying, leaving us in his dust. I thought to myself,”if he can do that, why can’t I”? So I tried to hurry up my shuffle a bit, to no avail. I was exhausted. Shortly after that, Hans told me there was yet another racer behind me. All day I’d managed not to give a shit about my place in the race. But for some reason, so close to the finish, I didn’t want to get passed again. Hans was picking out landmarks, and we were legit sprinting to them. Then walk, catch my breath, look back, pick another landmark, sprint. Repeat. His watch clocked us doing 6:30 pace. I ignored the pain. Thankfully a hamstring didn’t detach, an Achilles didn’t rupture. We continued in this fashion all the way to the finish, covering the last four miles in only thirty three minutes. This was without a doubt the quickest I’d moved in the last 31 hours. We were both shocked, but exuberant about not spending 80 minutes on that hot, dusty dirt road. Well done Hans, well done.
So What Changed
These are the most important aspects that changed between 2018 and 2019. Not sure exactly what influence each had, but they each inevitably had an influence.
- Attitude – Ok, I do know this is the most important change. I continually focused on positivity and gratitude. If I found myself feeling self doubt creep in, I beat it back with immense gratitude. I am so fortunate to be able to participate in this amazing sport. It is a lifestyle, and it requires some sacrifices. But my family and friends support me in this effort, and for that I am forever grateful. My body is capable, my mind is capable, my life is really, really good and I’m getting to do one of the things I love most. There is no room for self pity or doubt. Fuck that. I also simply didn’t care about my place. Not until the last four miles did I try to keep from being passed. When people passed me, I encouraged them. When I passed them, I encouraged them. These people are my extended family, and they deserve the utmost respect for being out there and battling despite their own circumstances and challenges. I also chatted with several folks, which I’d pointed out earlier was pretty rare. I found myself to be genuinely interested in their own stories, and hopefully my role was one of a protagonist. I hugged and laughed with my crew when entering and exiting every aid station. Yes, I was filthy and disgusting, but they tolerated it. I love these people, and that feeling can vanquish a great deal of struggle.
- Fueling and Hydration – I’d recently upgraded my hydration bladder. It was a three liter bladder, with clear marks on the bladder to indicate how much water was in it, or more importantly how much water I’d consumed. I made a point to know exactly how much was put in at each aid station, and checked at the next aid station to see how much was missing. I altered my consumption based on that, usually trying to increase it. I don’t think I ever fell behind on hydration, which is super important on a hot, high altitude course. My fueling was also very different. As discussed earlier, I relied a lot on white rice with soy sauce (salt and flavor) and sesame oil (fat and flavor). This worked beautifully and I don’t think I’ll do a run over 50k without some version of white rice to use as fuel. In addition, when my stopwatch beeped at the thirty minute mark, I ate. It simply didn’t matter if I didn’t “feel” like eating. I ate, and I appreciated the fuel regardless of how sick of it I may have been at the moment. A few low spots of nausea got me out of this groove, but I always came back to it.
- Course – There is no doubt that the course change helped me. Just mentally, going back to Jimmy Keen in the daylight would have been a challenge because in cooked me so badly in 2018. But this year, it the dark, it was bliss.
- Weather – In general, the weather was cooler this year. There was some cloud cover, some wind, and some lingering snow melt we could use to cool down. None of that existed in 2018.
- Poles – After 2018, I decided to get some trekking poles, and I think they really helped. I practiced with them, a lot. Uphill, flat, downhill, it didn’t matter. I used them for the entire race, and I used them with intent. I didn’t drag them behind me. I didn’t gingerly plant them into the ground. I didn’t stash them away for all but the most grueling climbs. I saw many other people using them incorrectly, which means they were just carrying dead weight. I may do a blog post on this topic…stay tuned. But thank you Leki for the rad product.
In the end, I finished in 31:04, taking 23rd place overall. There were 79 finishers, 33 DNF, and 15 DNS. It was one hell of an experience and one hell of an ultra marathon. Thank you to Run Bum Sean Blanton for being an evil fucking genius and to every single volunteer who cleared the course, marked the course, staffed aid stations, swept, and did everything else required to pull an event like this off!!!