Part 1: The Task Ahead
“Do I smell pancakes?”
There are times when this question makes sense, and there are times when the absurdity of it makes you giggle, because it is 1:00 in the morning, you’re several miles from the nearest sign of humanity, and it’s only just out of the realm of plausibility that the wolves you heard howling minutes before are firing up a griddle and whipping out a batch of delicious breakfast treats. Nevertheless, that was the situation we found ourselves in, this trio of first-time 100-mile runners who, after a wild combination of highs and lows spread out over the last 80 miles, ended up running in tandem through the darkest, loneliest part of the night. The story of the IMTUF 100, as is the story of any race that starts at 6am and doesn’t finish until the next day, is one of absurdity. It’s not without its share of inspiration, excitement, new friendships, teamwork, and, in some cases, intense competition, but the common thread that ties it all together is that the task at hand is a completely ridiculous one. Between whoops of joy, groans of disappointment, and the occasional olfactory hallucination, we are all there to accomplish one thing: get back to where we started.
Home base for the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival (IMTUF) is Burgdorf Hot Springs, nestled within the Payette National Forest, just under and hour drive north of McCall, Idaho. The cabins are simple and rustic, with no electricity or running water. There are wood stoves for heat and whatever you bring for light. There were 12 of us (five racers and seven crew members) who came down from Missoula and stayed in “The Castle”, a large cabin up on a hill, overlooking the whole race weekend scene. After getting settled in, eating a collaborative dinner, and making sure all our race gear was in order, morale seemed to be high among the ranks on Friday night. I slept intermittently, a little giddy about what was awaiting on Saturday morning.
Just as with every race morning, Saturday morning snuck up on me. Of course I knew I had prepared and was ready to run the race; I just wasn’t ready to start the race. But 6:00 always arrives, whether you want it to or not, and there we were, standing on the starting line, spending a minute or two excitedly cracking jokes about what we were about to do.
“Just remember, go out hard to establish a good position.”
“The key is, don’t ever stop at aid stations.”
“It’s just a 5k with a 100-mile cool down. Over mountains.”
And just like that, at the sound of the elk bugle, we were off, headed down the two-mile stretch of dirt road leading to the trails that would be our home for the next 19 to 36 hours.
Part 2: Settling In
IMTUF alternates directions every year, and this year was a clockwise year. In terms of course dynamic, that meant we would be encountering the easiest part of the course at the beginning, and getting into the more mountainous sections later. As a result, it took a good bit of restraint not to start out too fast on the smooth, rolling singletrack that comprised the first 25 miles. I found a group that seemed to be going a very sustainable pace and resolved to stay in the group until at least the first crew access point at mile 17. As it happened, fellow Missoulians John and Nate ended up finding their way into that group as well. It was comfortable, everyone was chatting good-naturedly, and I was happy to be out for a nice jog through the woods with a great group of people as the sun came up. I rolled into the mile 17 aid station feeling like I had run about 2 miles and spent about a minute and a half with my very excited crew of Kailee, Bill, and Nico. This was the first of many times I would see my crew’s smiling faces and feel the energy that comes along with it. In fact, it’s worth noting that essentially the whole race was broken into chunks based on when I would have contact with my crew. Their energy and excitement egged me on over and over, and gave me something to look forward to when it got a whole lot harder to keep moving. After refilling my two chest bottles, which I had emptied, stuffing my face with pickles, fig newtons, and swedish fish, and getting the all-important high-fives, I headed back out onto the course.
With the sun now beaming down on the trail, it became immediately obvious that I had forgotten to drop not only my headlamp, but also my wind shell at the aid station. That’s what I get for going through quickly, I suppose. I packed both items into my vest and carried on. The majority of the group I had been running with had spent more time at the aid station, and as a result I ended up much further up in the field than I had intended at this point. I tried hard to concentrate on my own pace, conserving energy and moving efficiently, and I continued to move up through the field from miles 17 through 30. We climbed up and over Diamond Ridge, which was the first major climb on the course, and as I descended to the second crew access point at mile 33, I found myself gaining ground on a group of three runners in front of me.
Once again, I went through the aid station fairly quickly, spending about 2 minutes this time, and left with the group. As I left the aid station, Nico reminded me, somewhat sternly after I had passed so many runners in the previous section, to go slow for the next 25 miles or so. This was the advice I would have to keep repeating to myself over and over, getting carried away for small stretches when I felt good, then repeating Nico’s words in my head: “go really slow.”
Part 3: Meandering
Starting slow is one thing, it seems, but maintaining a sustainable pace for 40 or 50 miles becomes more difficult. There’s enough time for the mind to wander, and having been out there for 8-10 hours already, I found myself getting caught in a trap of picking up the pace just because I was excited to feel good that far in. In reality, I was less than halfway done, and keeping things in check was still of the utmost importance. Eventually, I was able to settle in with a couple other runners on the way up to Duck Lake, and forcing myself to stay with them when I occasionally wanted to speed up helped keep the pace controlled.
As we meandered through the middle miles, I became aware that the runners around me were in a very wide array of different states, some clearly feeling confident and moving fast, and some already feeling the effects of hours of trudging through the mountains. The next milestone, at mile 49, was where many of us would pick up our first pacers, and was also a potential turning point where things could start to to well or take a downward turn very quickly. When I reached that point, I was running in 6th place and, from the looks of it, feeling better than many of my fellow racers. My crew was there with as much energy as the first two times I saw them, and by this time my dad had arrived and added more excitement to the mix. Kailee was ready to go; she would run with me for the next 11 miles. It was amazing to have her company, and I was fairly chatty as we climbed past Snowslide Lake and over the most beautiful section of the course. I felt strong on the climb, moving efficiently and conserving the necessary amount of energy.
What came next, though, was my first wave of self-doubt during the race. We had a long, gradual 9-mile descent to the next aid station, at mile 60. Where I had hoped to be able to stride out a little and make good time, I found my legs a bit uncooperative. I was still able to run, but gone was the smooth, efficient feel that had been present on the climb. A brief rain shower necessitated a stop to put on a jacket, and a couple bathroom stops zapped momentum a little further. Still, by the time I entered the next aid station, crew waiting anxiously, I was in 5th place and 15 minutes ahead of my projected time. I took 13 minutes to gather my gear for the night, eat some food, and mentally prepare for the long slog ahead.
Part 4: Charging Into the Night
What lay ahead was a 30-mile stretch with no pacer and no crew access, during which the sun would set and I would traverse the most remote sections of the course. As I pushed onward, the energy difference between the climbs and descents became more pronounced. Around mile 65, my quads started to throw a bit of a fit, and descending got exponentially more difficult. I still felt that, as long as the terrain was steep and everyone was walking, I could climb well, but the flats and downhills ruined any momentum I could find. Just after sunset, two guys passed me in the dark, and as much as I tried to hang on with them and use their energy, I just didn’t have the gusto to make it happen. I trudged on through the night, suspecting I might end up walking the rest of the way to the finish. I had tried not to dread this section too much, but it was intimidating, and it appeared that any fears I had about it were coming to fruition.
And then, out of nowhere, with no impetus whatsoever, everything changed. Part of the way down a rocky, technical descent, I felt my legs start to move smoothly again. I noticed that, in the distance ahead of me, I could see the occasional hint of a light from other runners’ headlamps: the two guys who had previously flown by me like I was standing still. Before I knew it, I was headed into the Box Creek aid station at mile 75, and I had company. Jeff and Heath, the two guys who had passed me, had recently arrived at the aid station and were chatting with the volunteers and hanging out with the goats who packed the aid in.
We all headed out together, and just as we were leaving I spotted a couple Missoula friends, Nate and his pacer Josh. They had been quietly gaining on all of us for a while, and now that they were in striking distance, I knew Nate would be giving whatever he had to make sure he chased us down before the finish.
In the next 15 miles, the highs and lows came and went quickly, but the three of us stuck together for the most part. We discussed running on treadmills, pizza as a trail snack, and how the occasional magical fart or burp could yield a fleeting burst of what seemed like superhuman speed at the time. Jeff smelled the aforementioned mysterious forest pancakes. We employed generous walk breaks while running down a dirt road at a 4% grade, because at this point, it was about us all getting to the finish in one piece. Nate and Josh eventually did catch us, and by the time we reached the next crew access point at mile 90, we had a bonafide pack running together at 1:30 in the morning. It was the most surreal and, in a very strange way, perhaps the most pleasant part of the race.
The aid station at mile 90 was a turning point for me, and not in a good way. I sat down by the fire and ate some soup, and I got a little too comfortable. I watched as Heath left, then Jeff, then Nate. My pacer for the last section, Micah, waited anxiously until I got up and got my vest back on, at which point I promptly headed to the side of the trail and threw up all the soup I ate. We took off slowly. At points with good visibility, I could see Nate ahead, but with each laboured step, he moved further away. We had one final 2,500-foot climb before plummeting to the finish line. In most situations, it would be considered a runnable climb, but there was very little running on this particular night. As we crested the top, the night was dark and the stars were among the brightest I have ever seen.
Part 5: Icing on the Cake
One descent to the finish. That was all we had left. According to my watch, I had already run over 100 miles. In a sense, what I had come out to accomplish was done. Sure, I hadn’t crossed the finish line, but I had run all through the day and all through the night. I had found camaraderie in the middle miles. I had felt the excitement of a good team working together at the aid stations to get me properly geared up, fed, hydrated, and back on the trail. The rest was all just bonus mileage. I bombed the descent at breakneck speed, and by that I mean 13 minutes per mile with frequent walk breaks, and occasionally muttering, “ow, ow, ow” beneath my breath. My knees and ankles felt like they might snap, but somehow the muscles in my legs were still managing to hold me up. 4 miles to go…3 miles to go…2 miles to go…there’s the road!
When we hit the road, Bill was waiting to jog the rest of the way in. It was a mile and a quarter, give or take, to the finish. I knew there was no one close behind me, but I kept glancing back, afraid a headlamp would appear out of nowhere and sprint past me. I was still in walk-jog mode, making liberal use of my poles to take the weight off my aching feet. Shortly before the finish, we were joined by Kailee and my dad.
It was maybe the least fanfare I have ever seen at a finish line. I got there at 6:39am, and there was a small handful of people standing around, having just recently gotten up or having stayed up all night. Either way, it was a sleepy atmosphere. I collected my belt buckle and collapsed into a heated tent next to the finish, where the 7th place finisher, who finished about 20 minutes ahead of me, was still warming up. We tiredly talked about the race briefly, then, still in a bit of a stupor, I hobbled over to the hot springs and hopped in, without a second’s thought about how I didn’t have dry clothes for after I got out.
Heath and Nate made their way into the hot springs as well. Between that morning’s soak session and a later one in the evening, we spent hours reflecting on all manner of things, primarily, of course, the absurdity of what we had just done.
As I write this, it has been 12 days, almost to the minute, since I crossed the finish line at IMTUF. One of the most common questions I get when discussing the race with people is whether I will do another 100-miler. I can safely say it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. For now, though, I still have the occasional aches and pains in my joints and tendons. If I twist a certain way, my hip still hurts. If I try to run more than a couple miles, my knees still whine and complain. The floppy toenail on my right foot is long gone, and the tender spots on my feet are mostly healed. Eventually, all these things will pass, and it will be time to plan for the next conquest.