Posted 1/9/2013 by estrandberg
There’s something about accomplishing a goal that makes me reflect back on it a bit less than when I fall short. In April I failed to complete the 100-mile Salt Flats 100 ultramarathon and it took me two months of reflection before I was able to articulate how I felt about the whole thing.
I got sick three days before the race and was coughing up blood during so I had a very good reason for not finishing, but it still haunted me for months after the event. Conversely, I finished the Pony Express 100 race last Fall and even when my body was still recovering, I had already moved on in my mind to what’s next.
I didn’t think I could go an entire year without completing a 100-mile distance so I decided to sign up for the Pony Express 100 in central Utah as a way to get some peace of mind. This event was a little different as it is entirely on remote dirt roads, which enables the runners’ crews to follow along in a vehicle and provide physical and moral support.
This appealed to me as it would be a chance to show my wife and parents what ultra running was about first-hand. My father even decided that he was going to ride his mountain bike alongside me for all 100.1 miles, which he did. So with my support crew of three, we set off for the old Pony Express Trail in Utah to see if I could fare better on a second attempt at completing a 100-mile race.
The start to the race was split into four groups with the slower runners starting at 5am and then the progressively faster waves leaving on the hour until the final group at 8am. There was also a 50-mile option so my 8am starting group of about a dozen runners consisted of the top five 100-mile seeds and the top 7 in the 50-mile. I was a little intimidated starting with the fastest group as there were names I recognized and respected standing alongside me while I was just a guy who had never even completed the distance. The morning was cold and clear and after a few instructions from the race director we set off.
I felt great for the first ten miles and the sense of the Old West was strong as a herd of two-dozen wild horses ran across the trail in front of me and settled onto a hillside alongside a number of pronghorn antelope. The dusty trail generally heads west and a couple of stretches were perfectly straight for ten miles, which made progress feel slow, but I was feeling strong and hanging closely to the front of the pack.
It was a warm day with a blazing sun and not a single hint of shade. By the 50-mile mark two of the top-five runners had dropped out which left me in second place. This was now getting more exciting for me as I was feeling about as good as one can after running 50 miles while actually maintaining the possibility of finishing near the top. The turnaround point was 58 miles in and the leader was coming back toward me at about the 55.5 mile mark so I knew he was leading me by about five miles (a huge margin). I knew I wasn’t in contention to win at this point, but holding onto my second place would far exceed my expectations.
That seemed to be short-lived as the third-place runner was coming back at me just a quarter mile after I hit the turn-around and she was looking strong. We leapfrogged each other for the next 20 miles or so before I pulled away a bit. With two miles left, in the darkest night I’ve ever experienced, I put in as much effort as I could to hold onto my spot. When I saw the lights of the finish line just a half-mile ahead I was relieved and ran as hard as I could to meet my crew who was anxiously awaiting my arrival.
It’s impossible to describe how I felt as I crossed the finish line. I was we beyond exhaustion and my legs were burning after running for 21 hours and 24 minutes. I was elated when the race director said I had finished in second place and only by 22 minutes (the leader faded badly over the last 20 miles). I hugged my wife with tears starting to form in my eyes and gave a big yell as I collapsed into a chair.
It was a lonely finish line…hours from nowhere in the Utah desert and only about ten people gathered in the cold black of the early autumn morning. I turned, expecting to see the third-place finisher close on my heels, but she didn’t come across for another 40 minutes; she, like the winner, had faded toward the end.
The reality of running 100 miles in less than a day still hasn’t really set in. The pain has faded and the sense of accomplishment is now obscuring my recollection of just how much my legs burned and my feet ached; enough so that I’m already looking forward to what my next 100 will be. If I’m lucky and get pulled in the December lottery it will be the Western States 100, the premier 100 mile race on the planet. If not, who knows? For now, I’m satisfied with accomplishing something that’s just a little absurd.