I ran this race in September 2006. This story was originally published in the December 2006 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.
“Which is worse: the long-term pain of not finishing or the short-term pain of completing the last 20 miles of the race?” This was the key question that my wife, Joan, asked me as I buried my head in my hands in near complete exhaustion at the 80-mile mark of the Grand Teton 100. Could I finish this race or should I quit?
The Grand Teton 100 is a trail ultra race in the Grand Teton mountains of Wyoming. With the start and finish at the Grand Targhee Ski Resort, the 100-mile course consists of four laps of 25 miles each. Each lap includes a climb of Fred’s Mountain (elevation 9840 feet) and then a drop down to Teton Canyon Road (elevation 6680’) prior to a climb back up to the resort at an elevation of 8000 feet. With a few other ups and downs the total climb per lap is over 4000 feet. Do this four times and the 100 miles is like running from the Tacoma waterfront to the top of Mt. Rainier and back.
Twenty-three of us started the race with the first climb up Fred’s Mountain at 6 AM, Saturday, September 2, 2006 (Labor Day weekend). The 2.6-mile climb goes up a rough, rocky ski tram service road that averages a 13% slope with steep sections in excess of 20%. As I took my first steps up the mountain I wondered where this journey would take me.
This journey actually started years ago. In some sense it started when I started running at the age of 32 in 1982, but more immediately it started when I ran the Western States Endurance Run in 2000. At Western States I hit the wall at mile 70 and missed by 8 minutes the cut-off time at the 72-mile Peachstone aid station. That experience left a bad taste in my mouth and the need to complete what had not been completed.
Fast forward six years and much had changed in my life: I divorced, remarried, started my own company, had two major surgeries, and had just recovered from a foot injury by the start of 2006. My new wife Joan, also an ultra runner, suggested that I try Western States again. When I failed to make it through the Western States lottery we went looking for another 100-mile race. Grand Teton 100 looked interesting and then it was just a matter of getting into shape to run 100 miles.
I have a rule of thumb when it comes to race distances: double the distance and triple the effort. That means a 10K is twice as far as a 5K but three times as hard. Correspond-ingly, a half marathon is three times harder than a 10K, and a marathon is three times harder than a half marathon. Extend this out to a 100-mile race and a 100-miler is 9 times harder than a marathon and 243 times harder than a 5K. This means that training has to take on a new dimension. Just running around Green Lake three times a week isn’t going to do it.
Training is both physical and mental. The physical consists of miles: trail miles, road miles, track miles. I did all three. I ran the Everett track with Steve Hamilton’s Port Gardner Bay Runners. I ran the roads around my home in Mill Creek. Joan and I ran on the weekends on the Cougar Mountain trails east of Bellevue. I competed in Scott McCoubrey’s Cougar Mountain trail race series and after finishing each race immediately returned to the trail for more mileage. I selected ultra races to build up my mileage. I ran the March Mudness 50K in Portland in March and the Mt Si 50K in April. And then in three consecutive weekends in July I completed the Siskiyou Out Back 50K in Oregon, the 7-hour Seattle Night and Day Challenge, and the White River 50-mile trail race near Mt Rainier. I was physically ready.
Mental focus is as important as physical strength. I improved my body awareness by taking Bridget Thompson’s Feldenkrais classes at M’illumino in Seattle. Joan and I received Pose running instruction from Graham Fletcher of Vancouver, British Columbia, to improve running efficiency. And, finally, during the two-day drive to Wyoming we listened to Dr. Wayne Dwyer and Dr. Deepak Chopra’s CD: How to Get What You Really, Really, Really, Really Want. They discussed how one can achieve one’s goals through the positive focus of intent.
Everything was in place for success.
My plan for the Grand Teton 100 was to run the first 25-mile lap in 6 hours, the second in 8 hours, and then walk the third during the night. The night lap should take about 12 hours. I then figured that I would be able to complete the last lap in 10 hours and finish in about 36 hours total. Little did I know that I would get lost in the middle of the night and waste an hour by walking an extra two miles.
And then it was time to put my plan into motion. I felt strong and relaxed as I completed the first 25-mile lap in 6 hours, 23 minutes. The second felt a bit tougher, taking 8:15; the third lap was tiring and lasted 11:29 (including the lost hour). I had now been on the move for over 26 hours. One last 25-mile lap to go.
I started up Fred’s Mountain one last time. This 1840-foot climb suddenly took on new dimensions. According to my body, I was headed up the North Face of Mt Everest. Take a step; take a breathe; take a step; take a breathe. An ice ax would have aided my progress. Foot by foot I willed my body up the mountain. Every step was a struggle; every breathe hard fought. Finally I saw the aid tent at the summit. Now I could run down and complete the lap. Only I couldn’t run. I could barely stumble down the steep incline. Round trip on this 5.2-mile up and back section would take 2 hours, 44 minutes; over an hour longer than my first visit to Fred’s Mountain, some 27 hours earlier.
Following the completion of the Fred’s Mountain up-and-back I arrived at the 80-mile aid station physically and mentally exhausted. The remaining 20 miles looked like 200. I wasn’t going to make it. Then Joan came to the rescue. She asked the question that I didn’t want to answer. She saw a flicker of energy left in my body and fed it with food, water, and ideas. She gave me a change of clothes. Soon I was back on my feet with renewed energy and confidence. I still had some 2000 feet of climbing in the last 20 miles, but more importantly I had the idea that I could do this.
I started again with a single goal in mind. Finally, 37 hours, 55 minutes, and 35 seconds after I started the Grand Teton 100 I crossed the finish line. It was a long and painful journey. I finished last of the 21 finishers, but finishing the Grand Teton 100 is my greatest victory.
I could not have accomplished my goal without the hard work and support of Joan, Joel Guay (my night pacer), and encouragement of the race directors, Lisa & Jay Batchen and Zach Barnett. Thank you all.