IMTUF 102.9 Idaho Mountain Trail Festival 9.15.17
I hate writing. I’d rather run 25 miles on the trails than writing a report. The only other blog post I wrote was in 2013 when I finished my 1st
Ironman race. However, now that I just finished my very 1st 100-mile race in beautiful Burgdorf, Idaho, I felt it was a great time to document my journey to get here. There will be a lot of details here to describe the background, training, decision-making, logistics, race preparation, the actual race experiences, and to finally get to the finish line. The report is more for my own future reference, so it might contain a lot of rambling which doesn’t quite make sense to people. Feel free to ignore the report completely or skip ahead the race sections to read about the race.
Chasing sub 3 marathon
If you’d ask me 6 months ago if I would like to run a 100 miler, I would probably tell you that you are insane. Every time I saw someone posted a trail race or long, hard trail training session on Strava, I would shake my head and say to myself that these guys were crazy, and I would never do something like that. For the past two years, my sole goal for running was to chase down a sub 3-hour marathon before my age catches up and I am no longer able to keep the pace up. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy running. Comparing to other sports such as swimming and cycling, I found running offers the best flexibility and maximum bang for the buck in terms of maintaining and improving health. However, for whatever reasons, I got myself locked onto this ridiculous notion that I could somehow break the 3-hour marathon barrier if I put the right training and race strategy ever since I qualified for Boston Marathon at age 50.
After following an intensive 18-week training plan from the book “Advanced Marathoning” by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, my race felt apart at mile 23 at the 2015 Boston Marathon in a cold and wet day, and I felt short of the goal and finished the race in 3 hours 8 minutes and change. Not accepting the defeat, I signed up another race 6 weeks after Boston and started quickly ramp up the training after a short recovery. My right Achilles was still not quite recovered from the previous race but the time was running out. I did my best to training and taper and finished the Light through the End of the Tunnel Marathon in 3:04:15. Not quite breaking 3 but I felt it was doable if I had the right training and recovery.
After a slow start in 2016, I signed up to run the New York City Marathon in early November, but my training didn’t quite start until mid-July. This time around, I didn’t feel that I had the right fitness and desire to reach the goal, especially NYC course is tougher than Boston with notorious hills towards the end. After doing some random stuff to keep my fitness throughout the 1st half of the year, I finally settled down a training plan called “Running sub 3-hour with just enough training“. Essentially, this plan calls for 3 runs a week: one gradual build-up to 10×800 @2:55-3:00 pace, one gradual build-up to 13 miles run @ MP pace (6:45 in my case), and last one consists of long runs up to 3 hours with last 6 miles @ MP. The remaining days would be cross training (I did most of mine on a stationary bike using ZWift software). The plan looked easy, but it was quite hard to do every week consistently, and I often dreaded the hard workouts days ahead. By the time I got to the starting line of New York, I was already quite tired even after the taper period, not quite recovered from the intensive training I did. I managed to finish the marathon in 3:14:55 after hitting the wall at around mile 18. It was disappointing but a great experience running with 50,000 other runners on this legendary course.
Fast forward to 2017, my work and running friend Sudheer and several of our colleagues signed up to this year’s Tunnel Marathon again in June. I wasn’t sure if this is going to be the year, but I sensed that the time window to reach my goal was fast closing as I’ve already reached 52-year-old in February. I still had a little bit lingering pain from injuries suffered in the previous year so training was sporadic and not very systematic in early months. Training volume hovered around 55-60 miles per week and only reached above 60 miles one week before the March 4th Lake Sammamish Half Marathon. I managed to run a negatively split race in 1:27.24 on a very cold day but the average pace was way slower than the same race two years ago when I did my Boston prep. I told myself that I still have time to ramp up my training and it’s now “do or die”. I picked up both the training volume (averaging more than 70-80 miles per week, running 7 days per week, and hitting hey speed days with two intervals and tempo training during the week for 10 weeks in a row). By the time I did another tune-up race in Kirkland Half Marathon on 5/14/2017, I PR’ed by almost 2 minutes with a finishing time of 1:24:45. This was an important confidence booster and great predictor for the good things to come in the coming marathon. After running another 70+ miles week and tapered for two more weeks, I was ready for the big race. On race day, the temperature was about 35F at the race start, a bit chilly but perfect for a marathon race. Everything went smoothly during the race, I was able to keep up both the nutrition and energy level all the way until the end and negatively split the race again to clock a 2:55:15 finish! Finally broke the 3-hour barrier, a goal I had been chasing for over 3 years since I switched triathlon to road running!
Celebration after finally breaking the 3-hour marathon
Getting a taste of the trails
Right after the Tunnel Marathon race, I went to have lunch with Sudheer and two of his training running friends, David and Steven. Both David and Steven finished much faster than me in this marathon and they are also both very accomplished trail runners. As we were chatting about the next races, they encouraged me to try ultra-races. I told them I never thought about running anything longer than 26.2 but they ensured me that trail running offers a lot of fun and is much nicer to the legs than the pavement pounding. The pace is much manageable as there will be many walking breaks They also told me that if I ever wanted to try it out, the upcoming White River 50 miler is a perfect race for me as the 50K distance is just a slightly longer marathon and that only 50 miles and above can truly teach me how trail races feel. Intrigued by their encouragement, I started my very first trail test run in the nearby Tiger mountain one week after the Tunnel marathon (I called it “Baby steps into Tiger”). Well, I almost puked after the run as I was panting and twisting my ankles pretty much all the way up and down! I almost decided to abandon the trail run idea right then. However, something kept getting me back to trails, partly due to the fact there are some many beautiful trails near where I live, and I had visited almost none of them in the 15 years I lived here. Little by little, I was getting hooked by trail running. I bought hydration vest, trail running shoes, and learned how to eat and drink during long training runs in the wild. My technique for both uphill and downhill started to improve. I watched many trail-running videos and read as many articles and I could find. I listened to podcasts about trail running on my way to work and back home. One thing that impressed to me was a quote that “trail race is just a glorified buffet with running breaks in between”. Gradually my heart rate stabilized on the climbs, and I no longer feared for my death on downhills and could run downhill with reasonable pace and agility. I also improved my endurance by running back to back 20+ milers 3 weeks in a row before the White River 50 race. On 8/5th, in a very hot temperature and smoky air, I finished my very first trail running race, White River 50, in 9:36:16, much better than I expected although I told myself that I probably wouldn’t want to do another trail race longer than this.
Happily running down the first mountain in White River 50, Rainier was supposed to be in the background but invisible due to smoke.
Oh my god, I will be running a 100-miler next week!
A few days after the white river race, the usual chattering in my head started again. What’s next? Is this it? Should there be more I need to explore in trail running? Why not a 100? I still haven’t experienced the extreme ups and downs only a 100-mile race can offer you. On podcasts, I heard people talking about those moments when you don’t want to move another step and seeing hallucinations during the middle of the night when both body and mind were pushed to the extreme. Only those moments can truly reveal who you are, what makes you tick, and how you manage to overcome the extreme adversities. I want to experience these myself!
I decided to look for a 100-mile race. The plan was to look for something in late October or November timeframe, so there is enough time for me to properly train for it. I have a relay race (Hood to Coast 2017) scheduled 3 weeks after the 50-mile race, and the plan was to switch to road running for those three weeks, run fast on those relay legs, and then switch back to trail running to train for the 100 milers. The candidate races are Javelina Jundred (10/28) or Rio Del Lago (11/4). When I talked to Sudheer, he said he was aiming for Imtuf 100 in Idaho and he might still do Javelina after the race if he recovers well. I briefly looked at the stats of Imtuf and saw something like 22000 ft climb, I told him good luck and didn’t think more about it.
After running strong for all three of my HTC legs on 8/25 and 8/26 (thanks to the trail training even those tough hills were manageable), I resumed trail training the next day after the race. Shortly afterward I watched UTMB streamed live and was instantly hooked by the beauty and unique stories from each runner. I was bombed that my favorite runner Chase Canaday didn’t run well as I was following his YouTube videos and Strava log closely, but I was getting quite excited and wanted to experience this type of race myself. Encouraged by what I saw, I went to Mount Si and did a double Si training run (with over 3700 feet elevation gain each trip) the next day even though I only had a few hours of sleep. Two days later on Labor Day, I did a rattlesnake mountain traverse for a total of 20 miles and another 5000 feet gain. The plan was to gradually build up both the distance and elevation gains to cumulate to back to back runs of at least one run longer than 35 miles in the coming weeks.
On 9/7th, as I was running my usual training run with Sudheer on Bridle trail, he made a proposal that I found captivating. He said if I ran with him on Imtuf on 9/15th, he would run together with me no matter how slow I am. Sudheer has been running trails for many years and has vastly superior knowledge and skills in trail running. Being able to run with him together means that I could drastically shorten my learning curve and rely on him for many of the logistical details that I hate. In addition, another friend of ours Alin also offered to crew and pace the last 30 miles for us if I do sign up with Sudheer together. At this point, I already made up my mind to go for it and signed up the next day. In retrospect, these were probably the reasons why I signed up even though I had not prepared for it and it is a distance and duration at least twice as long as anything I’ve have ever tackled (my longest running on foot was the white river 50 miles and my longest race was the Ironman Coeur d’Alene 140.6 race back in 2013).
- Running with friends and having Alin’s expert help. Alin is an accomplished mountaineer and has summited Mt Rainier multiple times. He is quite at home camping outside and takes care of people under extreme conditions.
- As I mentioned above, being able to tap into Sudheer’s vast experience and know-how would be super valuable for a race like this.
- My fitness level was still quite high after the intensive built up early this year, even though I haven’t done focused training since white river 50.
- I was always quite impulsive when making important decisions in sports. Once I determined it’s the right thing to do, there is no way back.
- The beauty of the course and the difficulty level impressed me quite a lot. If I want to do a 100 miler anyway, why not a hard one?
- Did I mention that this is a Hardrock qualifier? Even though I may never run Hardrock but having a qualifier under the belt is certainly nice.
- I really don’t want to train for another 2 months systematically. Let’s just jump in one and do it!
- You only live once, YOLO!
With the decision made, now it’s a mad scramble to get ready for the race with a little over a week left. First, I need to get a pair of trekking poles even though I’ve never used them before after Sudheer told me we might need those. I got a pair from the local REI store the next day and did a little training run on the local Cable line trail (climbing over 2500 feet in just a mile on technical trails). Though I didn’t quite get used to them I felt that having them would help me on tougher climbs and descents. I only fell once during the treacherous run thanks largely to the poles. Here are the remaining supplies I bought just the last few days before the race:
- Two pairs of shoes (Hoka One One SpeedGoat, and Hoka One One Challenger ATR3). I have two pairs of Challenger ATR2 shoes with one pair over 350 miles already. Not sure if one pair of shoes will sustain the whole run, I decided to buy another pair. After running with the SpeedGoat for a few days I was not sure if this is the one as its design is quite different from the challenger model. I rush ordered an pair of Challenger ATR3 from Amazon and it got shipped to me Thursday night, the night before our driving down to the race!
- A windbreaker jacket to keep me warm. I found a few cheaper Patagonia Houdini jackets on the internet, but none would arrive in time. I ended up paying full price at the local REI store.
- 4 pairs of SwiftWick socks. I’ve used them before so even though they were not worn-in I wasn’t too worried as they are pretty thin.
- A pair of leg compression sleeves. Again, never used them before but I figured I probably need them to keep my legs warm and help with the recovery.
- A beanie to keep my head warm at night (per Sudheer’s suggestion).
- A blister kit (I never developed blisters before but figured it might come handy)
- A few drop bags from REI
- A collapsible drinking cup as some aid stations would not have cups
- An extra Solomon soft flask in case I would need to fill up a 3rd flask with water or the other ones broke (also arrived on Thursday)
- A second pair of headlamp (BD Spot) as I wasn’t sure my other Petzl Reactik would have enough power to last both the early morning part at the race start and the night.
- Borrowed a sleeping bag from one of my friends as mine can’t handle temperature below 50F.
- Borrowed an inflatable pad and duffle bag from another friend
With almost no time for planning, I didn’t have enough time to read up the course descriptions and only had a vague idea what I signed up for. I finally got everything packed up on Thursday night and with many details to be figured out on the way there such as nutrition plan, drop bag plan, etc.
Burgdorf Campground (mile 0)
Sudheer and Alin took turns to drive us to Burgdorf, Idaho. Due to miscalculation of the time zone, we were under a bit of time pressure to get there in time for the Friday registration and briefing. As a result, Alin was driving at such a speed that he was caught by a highway patrol! The officer turned around, chased us down, and asked Alin for license and registration. Alin was visibly depressed. I decided to play the ultra-card. I told the officer that we were in a bit of hurry to get to an ultra-race. He stopped and said, “An ultra? That’s longer than a marathon, right?” I told him that no it’s much longer than that, it’s over 100 miles! He seemed quite impressed and said, “then you guys probably need a bit of luck.” I said, “yes, we totally need it and would really appreciate if you could let us go with a warning.” The officer smiled and told us good luck and let us go. What a relief! This little episode seemed to bode well for the upcoming race!
We arrived at the campground (elevation already at 6100 feet) shortly after 5:40, just in time to get our registrations and listened to the race directors’s (Jeremy and Brandi) briefing of the course. As expected, Sudheer knows quite a few runners there and said hi to them during the registration. I was getting quite cold at this point, so I zoned out toward the latter part of the briefing and instead paced back and forth in the back to generate some heat. Based on my vague understanding, the course consists of one big climb to the bear pet ridge, then another climb to north Crestline and then travel up and down for a while, another huge and technical climb to Snowslide summit, then the treacherous descend which Jeremy said something like “run if you have Kilian Jornet skills, or deal with huge hospital bills” and that if you can manage 20-minute mile pace on those downhills, that’s quite fast already. After that, we will get to mile 70 to pick up our pacer, and one more big hill then we are home free:), for a total of 102.9 miles and almost 22000 feet of elevation gain and loss. There were great debates both before and after the race in terms how long the course really is. Most of the Garmin and Suunto watched ended up recording somewhere from 105 to 110 miles for the full course and many people felt that the true distance should be around 105-106.
Jeremy and Brandi did the course briefing
Official course elevation profile
Sudheer and I enjoying the hot spring
After the briefing, all three of us got into the hot spring. Oh, it felt so good to get the core body temperature back and enjoyed the last calm evening in warm spring before the race.
After a brief light dinner at the campsite, I climbed into my sleep bag and tried to get some sleep. I’ve never camped outside before, so it was quite difficult to get some sleep. Finally, I dozed off at around 11:30 pm but was woken up at 1:30 by the sensation of dry mouth and smoked throat. Apparently, some campfire smoke drifted our ways while we were sleeping. I stayed awake till 2:30 and dozed off again till 3:30. I stayed awake from then and pondered the next move. My stomach which was a little upset from yesterday’s lunch was much calmer now. But I felt quite cold now as the temperature at the campsite must’ve dropped below freezing. I don’t seem to be able to sleep anymore and I was getting worried that the outhouse would be too busy given that they were only one outhouse and a couple of porta-potties, and I didn’t want to stand in the cold waiting for my turns. I decided to get up at 3:50, dressed up and got to the outhouse. It was still early so nobody was there. I quickly got my business done and changed into my shorts and jumped into the hot spring pool. I lay there alone for 45 minutes and gradually felt my body getting warmed up. I looked at the sky, it was beautiful and saw many gorgeous stars in the sky that we normally wouldn’t be able to see. Shortly after 5:00 am, I got out of the pool and changed into my racing shorts and warm clothes and shuffled back to the tent. Sudheer and Alin were already up and eating breakfast from the hot stove Alin brought. I ate a bowl of instant beef noodle soup and drank some hot tea offered by Alin. With that, I brushed my teeth and got last set of things ready and all the gears equipped. We paced over to the registration place and did our positive check-in (the RDs wanted us to do another check-in before the race start so they could have an accurate count how many people started the race for safety reasons). With a little over 5 minutes before 6:00 am, Alin and I walked out and slowly made our way to the starting line. We found Sudheer there and were all getting ready for the start with relatively high spirit. Shortly after 6:00 am, still in darkness, we officially started the race when some famous local bugler finished his bugle play.
Getting ready for the start
Cloochman Saddle and Upper Payette #1 (mile 9 and 14)
Our race plan was quite simple, run conservatively until mile 70, stay on top of nutrition, and relentlessly making forward movement. My final nutrition plan to just eat off the course. I learned that the stations offer VFuel (both drink and gels, even though I’ve never had these before but based on reviews they seem good) so I only brought 4 hammer gels and one flask of tailwind with me (with the other flask filled with water). I figured it should be enough to get me to the first aid station at Cloochman Saddle at mile 9, and I can then eat off the course and take gels and drinks from there on.
The first few miles were wonderful as we made our way around the early trails in darkness and climbed the gentle hills to Bear Pete Ridge. We chatted with fellow runners around us so these early miles went by quickly. We chatted with one lady named Jeney from New York and she mentioned that her fiancé Adam is also running with her and they planned to get married right after the race. What a fantastic wedding gift! Unfortunately, we learned later on that Jeney started to have hip problem mid-way through the race and had to withdraw. I am confident that she would bounce back and finish this race in the future.
We also chatted with another guy named Joel and found out that he was from the Seattle area as well. Joel told us that he tried this race a couple years ago but had to withdraw midway as his feet were destroyed by the fine “moon dust” on this course. Joel had a courageous race and he finished with fine colors. Most of the runners we chatted were either from New York, or Colorado, or Washington. Later on, I learned that one of the runners we chatted, Nate Swanberg from Colorado, finished the race an hour and an half ahead of us in a fantastic fashion.
Joel was leading the conga line with me and Sudheer tucked behind him
As the morning light started to come in, we were baked in the early morning Sun and enjoyed the breathtaking view all around us. At this moment, I felt so fortunate as only the very few of us were able to enjoy such stunning and gorgeous views.
We arrived the Cloochman station after about a little over 2 hours. I kept reminding us to eat a gel at every 45 minutes and made sure we hydrated sufficiently. Overall, I must have eaten 40-60 gels along the way. Those gels, plus cold water during the night, probably contributed to my upset stomach later during the race. At the aid station, I refilled both of my flasks with vfuel and grabbed a few more vfeul gels. I also ate a slice of quesadilla and a piece of bacon as my real breakfast. We thanked the volunteers and with that, we were on our way. We periodically asked each other how we feel and at that time both of us reported “all system go”. The pace felt quite comfortable as we were not pushing at all. My breathing was quite normal and felt easier than most of my training runs. Also to my surprise, I wasn’t sweating at all. Normally I would sweat profusely even on very easy recovery runs. I was really worried about this and prepared a couple of drop bags to change into dry clothes just before the cold night. I guess it was probably due to the dry and cold temperature in this part of the country.
After about 3 hours and 30 minutes, we arrived at the Upper Payette station at mile 14.7. We were quite excited to get there as this would be the first chance for us to see Alin after the start. Unfortunately, when we got there, we didn’t see Alin there as we were a bit faster than our original estimate. We took our time to refuel, eat and drink, thanked the volunteers and took off. Just as we were running out, we caught Alin coming down. I gave my headlamp to him, tucked my jacket and arm sleeves away, and he took a few pictures as we were leaving the station, still with high spirit. The next chance for us to see Alin would be mile 44 at Lake Fork trailhead station.
North Crestline (mile 23.6)
The first few miles after leaving Payette station was quite runnable dirt road along the beautiful Upper Payette Lake. Sudheer and I made some good progress and many crew members were driving by and cheered for all the runners. We still see the previous runners we saw on this section. Apparently, we ran faster than some of them but made many more stops and took longer time than them at the aid stations. It was quite typical that we passed certain runner(s) and a little while later we would see them again as they must have passed us when we stopped.
After around 3 miles on the road, we hit a section called “Terrible Terrence”. I jokingly called it “half trails” as it was not really a trail, but a one-foot deep ditch cut by many mountain bikers. The ditch was only about 4 to 6-inch-wide, barely can fit one foot. On both sides of the ditch, there are tall grasses/bushes, hard to run on. Initially, I didn’t feel anything but after a while, I started to feel my left side of the shoe scratching my left ankle. Many times, I couldn’t land my feet squarely in the flat part of the ditch so sometimes it got landed at an angle. Given that I was also wearing a brand new pair of shoes without breaking in, after a while it started to hurt quite a bit on my ankle. Initially, I didn’t realize what was going on, so I kept going until I felt I needed to stop to examine it further. Sudheer helped me find out that I already developed a blister on the left ankle, Fortunately, I did buy a blister kit just last week and he was able to use the kit to patch it up. I also used the opportunity to dump some sand out of my shoes as I didn’t have time to buy gaiters even when Sudheer said it should be needed on this course.
With blister taken care of, I started to feel much better and we resumed our running forward. After the terrible “half trails”, we finally got onto a forest service road that climbs up. Sudheer and I used our trekking poles to power hide this section of 4.85 miles, again passing some of the runners we saw before. I used this opportunity to practice my pole hiking skills, coordinating my arms and legs in various patterns to see what takes the least effort and generates maximum pace. There was one lady who ran past us with great pace. Both Sudheer and I were quite impressed with her but wondered if this was the right strategy. We eventually saw her again on the way down and at the next aid station. We run the last 1.2 miles before the aid station as it became flat again. Arriving at the North Crestline Trailhead aid station (mile 23.25), we did our usual refueling and dumping sands out of shoes. I probably ate another quesadilla and drank a bit of coke. I asked one volunteer about how many people were ahead of us. He smiled and told us “must have been a hundred”. Based on this information, I figured that we were probably one of the last 30-40 runners as there were only 130 starters out of 143 registered entrants.
North Crestline Profile
Before the race, I was quite scared of the north Crestline section as it would be more than 20 miles with only water stations in between. It was still noon at that time, so the temperature was already rising quite a bit comparing to the morning. Fortunately, it was not as hot as normal days and we got a bit of break on the Crestline. I grabbed some extra gels and a hammer bar. I decided to not carry another flask of water in my vest (I rush-ordered it just for this section) but given the temperature and that there is another water station in the middle I felt it was safe to not fill the 3rd flask.
We thanked the volunteers and called out our bib numbers to indicate leaving the station. The first part of the Crestline was a blur to me. All I remembered was endless trails, ups and downs, ups and downs. It was quite annoying as sometimes just when I got my poles out, it became downhill, so I had to tuck them away. Over time, I became quite efficient in pulling them out and tucking them away. All managed in under 30 seconds of time!
After passing the Bear Creek water station and refilled my flasks, we continued to the next section and started to climb the Fall Creek Summit before the final descent to the Lake fork aid station. The views were absolutely stunning on the climb and I stopped and took a few pictures along the way.
As we were making ways towards the Blackwell lake at mile 34.8, there were many creeks to cross. Some of them easy, some of them requires a bit of running around, trying to find the right landing spots. So far, I had managed to keep my feet dry as I was told that the next sections we would encounter some rocky and touch trails with ankle-deep moon dust. Wet feet plus moon dust would certainly spell doom!
From Blackwell lake, there were some steep climbs (which I felt still Ok and breathing under control), we finally arrived at the Fall Creek summit. From there we would drop over 2200 feet in a little over 1.5 miles. This is when I started to feel my right IT band tightening. At first it was just a whisper, it became louder and louder as we continued this treacherous descend. The pace was much slower than I anticipated as for some steep sections I had to use my poles to balance every single step down.
Descending carefully down from Fall Creek Summit after catching up with some runners
I finally made it down to the flatter section and met up with Sudheer! At that time, I started to think my next steps. My ankle blister seemed to be under control. My energy and nutrition levels were fine. Heart rate was still normal, and my breathing was under control. I was still quite dry and not sweating a whole lot. As a matter of fact, the t-shirt and shorts I started the race with still felt quite comfortable. The only issue was with my right knee. I do Ok on climbs and flat sections. Sharp descent would send stinging pain to my IT band when I needed to bend my legs. Even on shallow descents, I had to essentially run with relatively straight legs to avoid the pain. At this point, there were still over 65 miles to go! I really needed to start to manage it carefully from here, so it wouldn’t degenerate into a disaster! I was also trying to figure out the root cause, so I could make some changes. One possible reason could be that as I was developing a blister on my left ankle, I probably shifted my weight ever so slightly to my right side to compensate and this might have caused the extra stress to my right knee. Again, I had never climbed and descended so much in one go so this could simply be caused by just not having enough training and muscle adaptation. Sudheer gave me some Tylenol pills and after taking one the pain was a little better.
The last 3 miles were quite runnable, Sudheer and I broke into a trot. Partly because we were eager to see Alin, more importantly, I would get to change my shoes, clean up my feet and apply some much-needed foot glide. Sudheer also reminded me that at this point I had already passed the longest time I had ever raced so I was already in no man’s land. My longest time as I mentioned before was the 2013 Ironman race which I finished in 11 hours and 38 minutes. Anything longer than that, especially going to the night was something I had never experienced before.
We passed a few runners and ran into the station shortly after 5 pm and happily saw Alin already waiting there, taking pictures and welcomed us to the stations.
Lakefork Trailhead (mile 44)
Alin took care of us expertly, we simply sat in the chairs, and he brought in food and drinks we needed and refuel our flasks and gel bags while we made our cloth/shoe changes. I only changed my shoes and socks as my shirt and shorts were still dry. I applied some bodyglide to my legs and body, and then applied a thin coat of foot glide to my feet (after wiping them a bit with baby wipes as my feet was coated with a black layer of moon dust). I also borrowed a bit Gu cream from Sudheer and applied some to my feet before putting on a new pair of socks and changed into my old Challenger ATR2 shoes. From then on, I only had to dump sand and dust out of my shoes and my feet only developed a minor blister on the right heel, but it was not as painful I didn’t even bother doing anything to it until after I arrived at home.
I ate a cup of hot soup and drank some more coke. I also grabbed my Petzl Reactik light for the night, as well as a long sleeve shirt for the extra layer. I checked the battery level on my Garmin 935 watch, it was about 38% left. I tried to use Alin’s Solar charger at the station to charge while we were sitting but when we started to leave I noticed that the battery level actually dropped by 1%. Fortunately, I also had my other charger (quite heavy but effective) in a bag so I tucked that under my vest. I pinned the watch on my front vest lace, so it could hold steady there. I couldn’t read the tiny battery level in this configuration, so I had to rely on Sudheer to occasionally check the level for me during the next hour when it was charging. People may wonder why we paid so much attention to charge the watch. Well as my buddie Sudheer said, it doesn’t count unless it’s on Strava. I was determined to track 100 miles on my watch in one go, no matter how many times I had to charge it! I slowly made my way to the next section with Sudheer. The first few steps were quite painful as we were sitting there for quite some time. We walked a little to warm up the legs before getting into a jog.
Leaving Lake Fork station with stiff legs
Sudheer told me that we would climb 3000 feet in the next few miles. But as we ran along some rolling sections and ticked of miles, there was no major hill to climb. After 7 or 8 miles of gentle climbs and caught a few more runners along the way, it suddenly dawned on me that most of the climbs were all concentrated within the last mile!
Going through some rolling hills just before the dark
It was already getting dark when we started to hit the major climb before Snowslide Summit. We turned on our headlamps and charged on. We were not talking much at this point other than occasional gel interval reminders and checking each other if we were doing ok. It was just up and up and up. Sudheer was also hurting at this point and I could hear his grunting on those climbs. I still felt quite fine on the climbs and didn’t even need to put on more layers as the climbs generated enough heat and my knee wasn’t hurting as much on the climbs. Trekking poles again proved quite useful as I could keep some loads to my arms without overloading the leg muscles. As a former triathlete, I found it quite natural to use both arms and legs. As it was getting darker and darker, all we could see were a few glow lights along the way. I thanked the race directors for the fine marking job as I couldn’t imagine what it would have been looked like without those lights guiding us. Occasionally we would ponder a bit for where next but sooner or later we would find the next reflective marking or a glow light.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down (normally it was the other way around but on this day, I absolutely dreaded the upcoming steep decline!). From the summit, we would have to drop about 2000 feet in the next 2 miles with most of the drops concentrated on a few steep sections. The descent went very long and seemed to have taken an eternity. For every step-down I had to reach out carefully with my poles and endured some sharp pain when I landed on my right leg. I took another Tylenol pill. I started to curse under my breath why on earth the race directors had to design such as a god forbidden section. This went on and on and every time I thought it was over, a new steep section seemed to pop up from nowhere and the same thing repeated. Eventually, we made it to the bottom and rolled into the Snowslide aid station at mile 55. I looked back on the pace, we barely managed under 20 minutes per mile pace during this section, but we made it safely!
Snowslide Trailhead (mile 55.6)
Just before we reached the Snowslide trailhead station, we had to cross a creek to reach it from the other side. There were no obvious ways to get across and some volunteer said “left” while another “right”. I almost got across without getting feet wet but at the last moment, my left shoe dipped under water. My shoes have no waterproof feature so just a little dip seemed to have gotten my feet fully wet with freezing cold water!
Alin was there again and helped us with drink and gel supplies. I drank another cup of hot soup and some more coke. I also put on arm sleeves, jacket, beanie, and gloves as the temperature was dropping rapidly. I was chatting with a few volunteers and told them how god awful the Snowslide section was! They told me that the ordeal was almost over and there was just one last big climb and descent, then everything else was smooth sailing. How wrong was that turned out to be!
Small but lively aid station at night
We left the station without further delay. The next section was quite boring. It was just endless climbs on some service road which seemed never-ending. It did, however, brought much-needed rest to my knee as the gentle climbing put no further stress on my injury. This section was supposedly very beautiful during the days, but we couldn’t see anything at the night. All we were seeing was some faint glow light in the dark and endless road ahead when we looked ahead. After about 3 or 4 miles climbing on this road, we ran on gently descent dirt road and arrived at the next aid station at mile 61.3. From there we stocked up again and left for the next section. We were told that we would run about 10 miles in gently rolling hills to reach the Upper Payette station. As both of us were getting tired, this normally enjoyable section seemed to have taken forever. Both our watches recorded miles quite over the official aid station checkpoint mileage, so we were not quite sure exactly how many more miles we needed to go. Every time we thought there was just one mile to go, it turned out still ways to go after hitting the mile. We kept going on and on, passing a few more runners. Each time we passed someone, they would say “great job” to us and we would say it back, occasionally asking if they were doing ok if they looked injured. Sudheer must have hit some low spots at this point as I found him quite silent and often lagged a bit behind as we ran. For me, as long as I managed to slow down just a bit on steep downhills and tried to run relatively fast on shallow hills, so I didn’t have to bend my legs, I was fine with energy and there was no sign of sleep depredation yet.
Upper Payette #2 (mile 70)
We finally reached the Upper Payette station the second time (this time at mile 70 mark) shortly after 2:00 am. My stomach started to feel a bit upset during the last few miles with cold water and too many gels consumed at this point, so I had to go to the outhouse once we reached the station. Alin took care of us as usual. He waited for quite some time at the station and I could see he was cold standing in the wind. I think I ate probably two cups of hot soups there and some more coke to keep me awake. I had a drop bag there, but I didn’t find I needed anything, so I let Alin took them to the car. Only later I realized that I packed an extra pair of gloves and hat in that bag, I could’ve really used them a few hours later! He joined us to start the final 30 miles as a pacer which was quite a boost to both Sudheer’s and my morale.
Alin lead most of the ways with fresh legs as Sudheer and I trudged behind. The climb to the diamond ridge was the so-called “last major climb” so in my mind I started to turn on “just get this down then we are home free” mode. I watched Alin climbed ahead of us almost effortlessly, and just bit my lips and followed on. The wind was howling quite loudly now. We would occasionally hear wolf’s cry in the distance. We were quite exposed climbing the ridge so all of us put on extra layers. Sometimes I would put my hoodie on my head but doing so would make me a little hot, so I had to unhood shortly after. We passed more runners and offered our encouragement, finally reached the Diamond Ridge Goat Station after two and half hours of relentless climb.
Diamond Ridge Goat Station (mile 77.7)
The Goat station was manned by this wonderful couple Irene and Carl and their 4 goats. They volunteer at this station every year and used their goats to carry up all the supplies to serve us. We really appreciated the hot soup and fire there to warm us up. We thanked them and took a picture just before leaving as a tradition.
Smiling in the coldness with a goat!
The next few miles before Willow Basket was probably the most difficult miles for me. At the goat station, Carl told us that we would descend sharply for the first 2/3rd of a mile, then rolling hills for the next 4 miles. We started the same kind “run if you have Kilian Jornet skills” descend slowly, this time with every single step sending sharp pain through my right leg. It just seemed to be never-ending and I cursed now loudly with every single step. Finally, we managed to get through this section and had to cross the Victor Creek quite a few times. I managed to cross it the first couple of times but on the 3rd crossing, I had to jump on top a log and lost my balance. I fell into the freezing cold water and instantly submerged both of my shoes and right arm in the chilling water! After the race, I listened to a podcast and they talked about one of the tips was to run through water instead of trying to tippy toe your way across. Where was the tip when I needed! After that crossing, there were a few more and all three of us stopped worrying about getting wet. We simply wade through these ankle-deep code water without picking out the spots.
I was still dry just before I fell into the creek
After these crossings, both of my feet were soaking wet with mud and sand in them, and my right side including the right arm sleeve and glove were wet. I took out my right glove and hanged it under my racing belt, hoping for it to dry up soon. However, only after a few minutes, the glove was frozen-solid and I had to abandon any hope I could use it again. As I was trudging along, feeling incredibly cold, I tried my best to stay warm by tucking my right hand inside my right jacket sleeve. The right arm warmer was also a bit wet towards the end, so I had to yank it inside and only kept my hand inside a thin sleeve. The miles seemed to go on and on with no sign of increasing temperature. Before the race, I heard Jeremy saying that this section can be 20 degrees lower due the cold air being trapped down in the valley. I started to worry about getting hyperthermia, so I tried my best to increase my pace by running on flat and down sections to keep the body temperature up. At this point, my stomach was still getting uneasy. Increasing pace also meant further rattling the stomach. My right knee still felt every single step on downhills. However, comparing to the alternative, I had no choice but keep charging on. Apparently, Sudheer and the same idea so all of us started to run towards the Willow Basket station.
My light was also near the end of power, so it started to blink. Fortunately, now the night was almost over and if we squinted I could discern the trails underneath.
It was chilly, eerie and beautiful at the same time
Just at the daybreak we finally arrived at the Willow Basket station at mile 83.
Willow Basket Junction #1 (mile 83)
In my mind, I thought once we reached the Willow Basket station we were home free and would head straight back to the finish line. It turned out that this station is only a small aid station. We had to run an extra lollypop loop of over 10 miles to come back again then head home. As I was sitting there cold and tired, you could imagine how disappointed for me to realize this. Another 10 miles before heading back!? After briefly warming up a bit beside the fire and drank a cup of coffee, we charged on, with the knowledge that the next bigger aid station was only 3 miles away.
Chinook Campground (mile 86)
I was still quite cold as we got out of the Willow Basket station. At this point, I just mindlessly followed Alin and Sudheer. I didn’t quite understand or want to know what the next section would look like. It turned out that we had to climb 1500 feet and make similar drop during the next 3 miles. I was fine with the climbs other than being cold, but the decline was now almost unbearable. My stomach was hurting quite a bit and I urgently needed a relief. Finally, we crested the hill and started the descent. The station should have been just around the corner, but I was disappointed to find another section of trails after each turn. We finally arrived at the Chinook Campground and I headed straight to the outhouse. I did take several Toms along the way, but my stomach didn’t seem to be improve. Afterwards, my stomach started to feel better and I sat there and ate a delicious pancake with a piece of bacon as breakfast. Alin helped me with refills and gels as usual. By the time we left, I was no longer that cold and my body temperature seemed normal and I never descended into uncontrollable shaking as I feared.
The volunteers told us that we would run 4 miles along gentle downhill and then turn across a bridge and run on the other side for 3 miles of gently rolling hills. That would complete the total 10 miles of lollypop loop back to the Willow Basket station.
Ok, just 20 miles to manage, it should be something I could manage. We started to run the first four miles along the river. Alin ran back and forth and took some pictures of us along the way. The “gentle downhill” was not quite that downhill, with some sections seemed rather a bit climb.
We finally reached the bridge and turned right to the other side of the river. We climbed a 300 feet hill then hit a section of rolling hills. The trail was quite dusty but at this point, I didn’t care. My feet were covered in mud, sand, and dirty water so the entire shoes assumed this color of sandy mud. Energy wise I was still ok, the only thing I needed to deal at this point was to watch my right knee to ensure that I could finish the whole thing without catastrophic injury. After God-knows-how-many-turns, we arrived at this creek which I thought was close to the Willow Basket station. It turned out it was the extra section added by the RDs this year around the Loon Lake. It was just a checkpoint for us to mark our bibs. There was no water available and when the people there offered to give us water from the creek, I politely declined as I didn’t want to further upset my stomach.
The people there told us the next aid station should be just half mile away, so we started to run. After half a mile, there were just more trails. After 1 mile, the same. Alin started to sing “where is the Willow Basket” and all of us were impatient and wanted to get this over with. Finally, after 2.5 miles we reached the Willow Basket station one last time. We were quite happy to reach this station this time as we knew we’d already completed our lollypop loop and didn’t have to come back again.
Taking a short break at the willow basket station the second time
The Final Push to the Finish
With only 10 miles left, we knew at this point that there was no way we wouldn’t finish the race, only how fast we finished it. The original 28-hour goal was out of the window a long time ago. At this point, even 30 hours seemed beyond reach as we would have to run an average 14 minutes per mile pace for the remaining 10 miles, with still more climbs along the way. The roads out of Willow Basket were quite confusing as there were four different choices you could make. We followed a volunteer’s direction and picked the middle route. At this point, every trail seemed to be similar and I was suspecting we already covered this trail and may have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Fortunately, after a mile or so we saw clear signs that we were on the right track.
Sudheer seemed to have come out of his slump at this point and wanted to push harder. I told him that there was no such need as we already missed our 30-hour mark and there was plenty of time for us to arrive there still with a decent finish time, with no need to push early on during the last 9 miles and risking blew up later or worse suffering some serious injuries. Worse yet, my eyes started to get blurry. One of the contact lenses seemed to have dislodged in my left eye so that eye couldn’t see much. The contact lens in my right eye would fade in and out as my eye was probably too dry at this point. I had to blink my eyes a few times to see the trail each time it went blurry. Fortunately, this section wasn’t too technical so it was not too big a deal even if I couldn’t see clearly. The early part of the trail was mostly uphill so we were mostly power hiking up anyways. After 4 miles done and with 5 more to go, Sudheer urged me to increase my pace. I still felt it was too early to push but once I learned that if we ran under 12 minutes per mile pace, we would still beat 31-hour mark. That was enough incentive to get me going. We started to run, initially running with some walking breaks but with 4 miles to go we never stopped other than stopping briefly and offering our remaining Tylenol pills to an injured runner. We ran and ran with pace around 10 minute/mile. We finally turned onto the road leading to the finish with only 2 miles to go. I told Sudheer that we’ve got this and he had to tell me to slow down a bit so we could finish it strong. We increased our pace and passed a few more runners. We said hello and encouraged them to follow on and kept running faster and faster. The cars on the road were cheering for us which gave us even more encouragement to run faster. We finally turned into Burgdorf road and saw the finish sign just ahead. Alin sprinted towards the finish line and took a few pictures of us as Sudheer and I held our hands together and crossed the finish line with the clock ticking at 30:42:06. The final mileage on my watch was 106.78 miles. We ended up 38th and 39th respectively. With 41 runners dropped out, 15 no shows, and 86 people finishers, I was quite happy with our finish time. Based on my watch, it looked like our running time was only a little over 27 hours and it took us more than 3 hours stopping and staying at the aid stations. To my surprise, it turned out that I ended up being the 1st 50-year-old for this race.
Final push towards the finish
Reward for completing the course. A black or red colored belt buckle would be offered to anyone finishing it the second time, well?
After the race and driving back
After receiving our belt buckles from Jeremy and thanked him for the terrific experience, I ran to the outhouse one last night. Afterwards, I asked Jeremy where I could wash up so I could jump into the hot spring which I was thinking about with 20 miles to go. He told me that there was a small outflow from the pool I could use soap there to wash up. He also warned me that I should eat something before jumping in the pool. I wanted to get into the pool so badly, so I ignored his advice. I carefully walked down to the outflow and soaked my feet and body there for quite a few minutes. Every step seemed quite painful now. I jumped into the pool and warm water embraced me. I stayed there for about 20 minutes until my body temperature was back to normal. I slowly climbed out of the pool then realized that I had no clothes to change into as all my clothes and bags were left at the Upper Payette station when Alin joined us as our pacer. Having no choice, I wore my wet shorts and put on my race shirt (still dry at this point), and slowly walked back to our tent barefoot.
At the tent, I found an extra pair of shorts and with those, I was finally off the wet shorts. I walked over to the chilly soup station and had one bowl of hot chilly. As I was walking around trying a find a place to sit, a nice gentleman from Idaho stopped me and offered his chair to me. He told me that he had a terrible crash yesterday at the Snowslide descent and had to withdraw after suffering some injury. I thanked him and said good luck to him and went back to the tent.
Sleep depredation finally hit me. I was amazingly alert throughout the day and night that I was never feeling sleepy during the 31-hour adventure. It was truly amazing that our body could sustain us for so long without sleep. Until I actually experience it I wouldn’t have believed it.
It was quite hot to sleep in the tent as the Sun started to shine brightly through the tent. I remembered I saw some runners laying near the other side in the shade, so I took my sleeping bag to the other side. Over there, I found a small patch of grass under shade and fell into sleep quickly.
Sudheer woke me up at 5:20 and he told me that Alin was already back with the car and we were ready to head home. We quickly packed up and started the long journey home. We took turns to drive as each of us was dog tired and could not drive more than an hour and a half each time without risking driving the car into a cliff. We finally arrived at Sudheer’s house at 3:30 in the morning and I drove home from there. Amazingly, all three of us showed up to work the next morning.
First, I’d like to thank my wife and daughter for being supportive for me to chase my dreams. They have been great supporters throughout my journey. They tolerated me when I had to leave home for long training runs or races. My wife sometimes worried about the risk in running these crazy races so I had to sometimes soften the actual difficulties so she wouldn’t have to worry too much about me.
I want to give a million thanks to Alin for taking care of us throughout this fantastic experience. He took care of us so well during this trip and through each crew station that sometimes I felt guilty for letting him do all the work. I would recommend Alin to anyone who wants to try a 100 miler and you will guarantee to receive the best crew service from him, bar none. Also, I want to thank him for tolerating us after joining us at mile 70 for not being able to keep up with pace with him. He looked so lightly and agile on those tough trails that I could only imagine what it would be like to run so fast on those tough technical descends. He truly looked like a mountain goat on that Diamond Ridge! Alin, I think you should sign up next year’s race on this course. It’s designed for you.
I also want to thank Sudheer for providing the expert support and guidance to trail running and 100-mile races. I still vividly remember back in June when he and his friends encouraged me to try an ultra-trail race just to see how it feels back in June after our tunnel marathon. Being such a newbie and only decided to sign this race up one week before certainly didn’t help with my preparation and logistics planning. I had no clue how much logistics planning is needed for such a long race that I was still trying different things and ordering and buying stuff from REI during the last week that my last order didn’t arrive until Thursday night (including a pair of shoes I’ve never tried and decided to start the race with them!). The only reason I could pull this off was to rely on Sudheer’s huge experience and his expert advice both before and during the race. Also, really appreciate that you didn’t abandon me when my right knee started to feel rather bad and I was unable to generate any speed on steep descents. I knew he would have finished way faster if he didn’t stick with me and took care of me. Part of me felt so much guilt for slowing him down that I tried my best and endured as much pain as I could handle to try to keep the pace decent. For the last 10 miles when I felt I really couldn’t run another step since my leg pain was excruciating, I’d like to thank him again for his strong push and encouragement that we were actually able to run quite a reasonable pace in last 4 miles that were probably the fastest split during the entire run! I remembered that I told him right at the start of the race that we would be so happy if we could finish the race with that pace, I guess we nailed that.
Also, I want to thank Xiao for letting me borrow her sleeping pad and a duffle bag full of goodies. To my surprise, I found a bag of delicious beef and macaroni Friday night when I was debating what to eat in the cold weather. That bag provided the necessary energy for me to go through the night and big part of the race!
I want to thank Shaofeng for lending me his sleeping bag and I couldn’t imagine how I would’ve been able to get through the night before the race with my cheesy bag. Thanks for all the encouraging words and support you’ve given me throughout our training runs.
Lastly, I’d like to thank every one of my real-life friends and social network friends for the encouraging words and cheering. I was thinking about all of you and your encouragement during my darkest hour when I felt in cold water during a creek crossing in mile 78 and the temperature must have dropped well below freezing.
Some people asked me why. Why did we have to put our bodies through such ordeal. To them, I offered the following answer. The fantastic and break taking views, untainted natural beauty, the sense of adventure, super supportive and energetic crew and race organizers, the comraderies with fellow runners, and most importantly to keep finding what it takes to get us going when the going gets hard, to find your innermost vulnerable point and ways to overcome them, are the few of the things keep drawing us into the sport. ☺ If I sounded depressing in my report, I left out the obvious. This race was possibly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life! A million thanks again for the race directors and volunteers to make this happen for all of us fortunate runners.
RD’s note. I shudder at the thought of running that entire course. My goodness it is hard. I have never gone more than 35 miles of it at a time and even then, I was very ready to reach my truck. I am amazed that so many have finished. Sincere congratulations.