The feeling just at the start of a really long ultra as I take the very first few steps is somewhere between, "This is going to be incredible!" and "Why do I keep doing this?..."
Knowing that from that very first step that you are now committed to running across a mountain ridge, 10,000 feet of elevation gain over the most tretcherous and punishing terrain this side of a lava field and it's going to take you (me) no less than 12 hours to do it. Daunting. Miserable. Crushing. But with it's upsides...
Ultrarunners are Gunslingers?? What?!
People always ask me what I could possibly think about when I'm running for 50 miles. So here's a pretty random example as I was climbing up the first 1,000 ridge to a spectacular view (see: upside) of the Mogollon Rim at sunrise as we started our test of grit for the day. Running behind this fellow pictured above I faintly recogonized him but as in ultrarunning you typically are either talking to people while running in front of them or while running behind them as I was in this case. Rarely is the trail wide enough to allow side by side running so you are left talking over your shoulder as you dodge, duck and do your best to survive the conversation without taking a visit to the Village of Faceplant.
Having read just about every Western novel known to man (amazing I know) and with Lonesome Dove being the single greatest movie ever I'm a pretty big fan of the "Old West" and sometimes I find myself yearning for a reason to use the word "reckon" and possibly shoot someone in a saloon. I've yet to do either but I'm still young. Regardless if anyone's read any Western or just watched Kurt Russell play Wyatt Earp in Tombstone you know that in the Old West a stranger is just a stranger when he walks into a saloon. He's a stranger as everyone is looking him up and down until of course he's asked his name. "Wyatt Earp" he says in a bold, manly voice behind his stud moustache. Immediately the drunk at the bar asking his name is hushed, and tries to back down now knowing that this stranger was a gunslinger and nobody to mess with. How does this correlate to ultrarunning? Perfectly actually. At least in my warped and caffeine overloaded running mind. There are no baseball cards for ultrarunners. Beyond the "famous" ones like Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer and of course Dean you don't really know who anyone is beyond a name on a results sheet. You just see common names in your races and you know where some people finish, either faster or slower than you typically run. In the Zane Grey 50 you really, really need to pace yourself as much as any other 50. You have a nice climb at the start that does nothing but stretch out the legs for the big downhill along the ridge that begs, and BEGS you to fly down the ridge at breakneck speeds behind anyone that is in front of you. What you have to be very careful of is not following behind someone that is vastly superior to you in their ability to maintain the speed you are currently going. So when you a kicking along at a nice, quick, pace in the beginning of a race you tend to ask guys and girls in front of you what their pace is or what they expect to finish at or where they finished last year. So when you are clipping along at a fast pace very early in a race behind someone and you are going through the small talk of a race you start to piece together a few things and become the drunk at the saloon:
"Have you run this before" you ask.
"Couple times" says the guy in yellow
"Where are you from?" you ask.
"Flagstaff, I ran this the last couple years." the guy in yellow says as you start to get a sinking feeling in your stomach as you break 8:00 min miles up the gradual hills
"Oh...Flagstaff? Yeah...it's nice there. Good elevation training for you. So...what was your name?" you ask sheepishly...
"Wyatt Earp" he says
Seriously with the rocks...
The trail is pretty gnarly. That is actually a big understatement. It varies between stunning forest singletrack and What the F*** Just Happened Singletrack. The sheer number rocks is baffling and laughable for miles 1-23. After 23 "laughable" turns into "anger" which then turns into borderline emotional breakdown only cured by gels, bananas and s-caps. Your relationship with the rocks on the trails dashes between so many levels but never leaves you and you never can let up. Let up for one half a second and your relationship just became very intimate and your face is going to be bleeding. Guaranteed.
So without breaking down each segment of the race it's simplier to state just that this race is hard. While not profound in any sense there is really no other way to elequently state the difficulty of the race. It's just hard. HARD. It forces you to put every ounce of energy into every step, every incline and every rock field, every grass covered rock, branch, every log you have to climb over, every river you go through, every exposed piece of sunlight that saps your stregnth. Every bit of it pushes you to your limits and the devil on your shoulder laughs at each misstep, whispering in your ear to just sit down, take a break, and think about how nice it would be to just quit right now. He wants you to do it, you want to do it, you should do it.
Vlad the Great
Ultrarunning for me has always been about more than running trails. It started out that way but quickly I realized its almost more about the people that are going through the same self induced anquish and misery and that go through the sheer elation that is completing something so hard that 99% of the world population will never even attempt it. This year would be a little over a year of running Ultras in Arizona so I knew a good deal more people this year than last at this race and I knew it would help to get boosts along the way when I saw people I knew. From the start I was seperated and surprised I didn't know anyone, at least until Wyatt Earp announced himself to the saloon drinkers. I made it a good ways before super nice guy Jay Danek caught up to me with his every cheerful, "We've got a 12 hour in us for sure!" I was currently cramping badly at not even half way through the race, inexplicably really, and wasn't feeling the most confident. I couldn't even keep up with him so he went on and ended up with a great 12:06 in his first attempt at Zane Grey. It wouldn't be until Aid Station 3 at Hells Gate (appropriately named...) where Paulette, Grandpa Jim, Dallas all caught me at the aid station. I was determined to break this cramping and hammered down as many electrolytes as possible so a few guys passed me and when Paulette headed out I kept up behind her for the second half of the race.
That lasted about 3 minutes and I settled in for what would be the remainder of the race with Vlad from Czech Republic. He's a Los Alamos resident now and at that point I had determined he wasn't a gunslinger of note and we could trot along at our pace and I didn't have to worry about him killing me. Physically or metaphorically speaking. Paulette disappeared into the ridgelines and despite a dozen attempts to catch her with her only a hundred meters in front of me I wasn't able to do it. I hammered one downhill stretch (by "hammered I mean at a 10 minute mile...) and was still not able to catch her. Of she went and it was Vlad and I with Grandpa Jim catching up to us. We pushed on through this hellish stretch knowing full well that at Mile 33 I had my brother Noah to push me through the last 17 miles. I ran hard the red rock section of the last portion and came into Mile 33 Fish Hatchery feeling great I was able to run some more and I had a companion to get me through the last bit. Or so I thought.
Mile 33-51- Shoot me in the face...
I wanted to quit. My stomach was feeling violently ill, bloated and nothing was working. My legs felt like strapped down waterlogged tree branches, my feet were pulverized due to my idiotic decision to wear brand new (16 whopping miles on them) La Sportiva Crosslites instead of my trusty and rugged Cascadias. Had my stomach just been able to be corrected I could have just pushed through but every step was a test in GI control and every walking step further infuriated me in watching any chance for breaking last years time just slip away, one 23 minute mile at a time...the dozens and dozens of people that passed me that last 10 mile stretch only further pushed me into an angry depression that left me convinced to drop at mile 44. Convinced.
I got to mile 44 and Alaska Jim MacDonald was just coming in right after me. Then Dallas, then a half dozen other people I either knew or had seen several times throuhout the day. Chuck was there cheering me on and when I saw Jim so fired up for the last stretch (clearly just had a gel) I knew I wasn't quiting. Vlad pushed on with me and we went up the last big climb. Ten minutes later Vlad was vomiting violently and Noah and I knew he would be turning back to the aid station and that was the end to his long day. To our surprise he got up, started power hiking and passed us...
Pity Parties are for Quitters
Somewhere along the last stretch as the sun was coming down I started to feel slightly better and pushed myself to run. I made it until the first incline until the giant blisters on my heels finally split open and each step was rubbing raw skin. At this point I was really tired of that little bastard sitting on my shoulder telling me everything that was stacked against me, reasons to walk, reasons to quit. The pity party had gone on far too long, the partiers had all left the house and I'm just left with the balloons, streamers and no cake. I was done with it and kept running. It started as just a run a stretch walk a stretch stragedy but it felt good and I was just plain DONE with this day. I pushed on and on and with next to no water left I just kept running. Not fast, not hard, just steady and enough to cover ground in a reasonable amount of time and by this point it felt like a sprint. We caught a few people and as we rounded one bend after another the 260 highway got closer and closer and you could hear the traffic. I knew we were close and I didn't want to stop running. We had long since lost Grandpa Jim on his mission to finish hard and he did in a great 12:10. Vlad had pushed ahead of us in his post vomit rush and we finally caught up to him less than 1/2 mile from the finish. Noah kept up his "great pace, keep moving, you are doing great!" mantra as I finally got him some time on his feet running not hiking. We came in together with Vlad at the same time to the cheers of the finish line in a less than stellar (for me) 13:23 but ultimately very satisfying finish.
So a full week later I've overcome the "I'm never running again and I'm DEFINATLEY never running Zane Grey again" mentality that dominated and poisoned my thinking for the first four or five days after this race. My body was broken, my pride was cracked and my aspirations fell well short of what I expected. I could make a lot of excuses of why I didn't do as well but ultimately I wasn't prepared as I should have been, didn't take this race as seriously as I should have and when it comes down to it I overestimated my current physical fitness level and just expected to get through on own own one way or another. Which certainly happened but not easily and not with a lot of fun. So I'll be back next year as I can't possibly end my Zane Grey career on this run. I'm much better than that and plan to push hard in getting as ready as possible for this race. Maybe I'll even run every week!