(. . . weekly mileage at the end, maybe, if I feel like it . . .)
Dave Snipes, aka "Sniper," is an East Coast ultrarunning legend for the frequency and consistency with which he races (coming in to Wasatch, 220 ultras run in the past 10 years, with only 1 ultra DNF), as well as a good friend of mine ever since he "saved my life" by giving me a water bottle at Old Dominion in 2008, when I was foolishly running without one. So when he gave me the opportunity to pace for him at the 2011 Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run, the last race in his bid to complete The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch, all100-mile runs, all about a month apart) The Last Great Race (all of the preceding, plus Old Dominion, about three weeks before Western States, and Angeles Crest a week after Vermont, both 100-mile runs),and The Western Slam (Western States, Angeles Crest, Leadville, and Wasatch), I was immediately grateful for the opportunity to help him out, as well as to preview the Wasatch course. I made my travel arrangements a couple weeks before the race (thanks, Priceline, for the awesome last-minute deal), and before I knew it, I was on a plane bright and early on Thursday morning, headed from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City.
The flight was uneventful, and I met Sniper at the rental car counter at SLC, where we soon were introduced to Magellan, the voice-changing lesbian GPS (so dubbed for the seemingly arbitrary lower voice when naming certain streets), which quickly acquired the "ego-boost" feature, as a result of my irritation at the GPS's apparent need to reassure us that we were going the right way every 15 seconds, rudely interrupting our conversation. We added our own commentary: "Gosh, you look nice today!" "Is that a new hat? It looks great on you!" "Where did you get that haircut? They did such a great job!" Yes, we were going to have fun on this trip, no matter how awful the race might turn out.
After the requisite Wal-Mart stop for a $99 point-and-shoot camera to photo-document our adventure, plus a stop at Sniper's favorite retail outlet, the Dollar Tree (which, it turns out, has all of the supplies you might need to run an ultra, at an unbeatable price), and finally, a stop at McDonald's (where the sodas were tightly controlled, but the french fries were somehow the best I've ever had at a McDonald's), we went to the packet pickup and pre-race meeting. The meeting lasted only 20 minutes, and they went over only the most important rules (most of which were not very strictly enforced during the race anyway). I suppose when the race is as difficult as this one, they figure common sense will ultimately reign supreme. We collected our swag (containing a lifetime supply of camo-pattern Moeben sleeves, courtesy of Shannon Farar-Griefer, as well as four pacer bibs - you know, just in case anybody else wanted in on these wilderness shenanigans), and then went to meet Collin Anderson for a run up to Grandeur Peak (with the race tomorrow, Sniper wisely chose to sit this one out). I got a few good pictures from the top, and a few good road rashes from a wipeout on the way down, when I was flying down a steep downhill and caught my left toe on a rock - thankfully, no serious injury, and then it was off to dinner at the Spaghetti Factory, final preparations at the hotel, and then sweet, sweet sleep for about five hours.
The alarm went off at 2:45, and we dressed, packed our things, and headed for the buses to the starting line, conveniently a block down the street from the Motel 6. We had a dark, quiet bus ride, and then, ominously enough, we were dropped off AT THE BOTTOM OF A STEEP HILL, left on our own to walk uphill to the starting line. We had about half an hour before the start to make any last-minute changes to our plans, which involved me going back to the hotel with another runner's wife (Miriam Wilcox, whose husband Adam Wilcox would finish eighth, in a bit over 22 hours, and earn the prestigious Cheetah belt buckle), sleeping a bit more, then going out to the Big Mountain aid station with her when she went to wait for Adam, then waiting at the aid station until Sniper showed up. This all seemed good enough, so I had plenty of wherewithal to take a video of the start (which was hard to see, because unless you pass the gate in front of the start, you can't see the runners in front).
The start . . .
Then I caught a ride with Miriam back to the hotel. I got a few more hours of sleep, a little tour of Temple Square, an awesome breakfast at a Mormon cafeteria there (really, they're too nice!), and did a little bit of sightseeing and geocaching with Miriam at the "holding area" for cars before we went up to Big Mountain around noon to wait for Adam.
At Temple Square - almost as imposing as some of the climbs and descents in this race. ;)
Our lovely "holding area" . . .
Miriam said that Adam wanted video of him coming down Big Mountain, so I decided to practice by shooting a video of the first person I saw coming down the mountain, which turned out to be none other than ultrarunning elite Karl Meltzer.
Karl Meltzer, crusing in to Big Mountain (mile 39.4)
So that immediately went on Facebook, properly tagged and hash-tagged, poor cell phone signal be damned. Adam came through about 20 minutes behind Karl, looking strong as well.
Adam Wilcox, entering Big Mountain
After his quick stop at the aid station (a minute, if that), Miriam packed up and left, and I was on my own, meandering about the aid station, alternately seeking shade and warmth as the situation warranted, watching the runners come in. Sniper was hoping for a sub-30-hour finish, which would have had him at the aid station at around 2:30, but 2:30 came, and instead, Collin showed up, to pace another runner for about 15 miles. I chatted with him briefly before he had to take off, and he commented that my pack (15-20 extra pounds, depending on the amount of water in the bladder) was a bit much, to which I responded that I felt like it was a fair handicap, on top of which I needed to be absolutely certain that I had all of the supplies that I might need to ensure a successful finish for Sniper. Collin eventually left, the clock continued to run, and still no Sniper.
At about 4:30, as I sat in a chair near the aid station entrance, jacket on, legs wrapped in a trash bag to keep warm against the insult of the cold wind, Ryan, a local gentleman who is a friend of one of Sniper's friends, and his father showed up to help crew. Since there are very few crew access points during the race (only three, and none in the critical last 25 miles), we weren't sure how helpful they could be, but as it turned out, they had an extensive knowledge of the trails and local environment, and were an able extra set of hands at the aid stations that they could access.
Finally, at around 5 p.m., Sniper came in, later than he had hoped.
Sniper arrives at Big Mountain
Knowing Sniper, I suspected that things were generally not going too well. The first words out of his mouth - "This is TOUGH!" were instant confirmation. I knew that we were no longer pushing for a sub-30-hour finish, but simply a finish within the 36-hour time limit, to complete the Slam,the Last Great Race and the Western Slam. My role would be primarily of the patient companion, helping to maintain a comfortable pace for him, and administering the ass-kicking only when necessary. After about ten minutes at the aid station, we set off down the trail to Upper Alexander, and my first taste of this amazing race. Part of my job as pacer was also to be his "PP," or Personal Paparazzi." With my trusty red Wal-Mart camera in hand, I would be taking pics along the course of the beautiful mountains while he was running the race.
Sniper was right - this was tough. We immediately started climbing out of the aid station, under tree cover, but that soon gave way to an exposed downhill, which afforded incredible views, but not much help in the way of increasing the pace, due to the steep, rocky trail. The exposed roller-coaster ride continued the entire way to Upper Alexander, and we enjoyed views of an ominous raincloud in the distance, occasional flashes of lightning, and conversation about everything and nothing. It was clear that my presence was helping, as we caught and passed seven runners on our way to the aid station, in spite of our slow, steady progress.
Thunderstorm in the distance . . . thankfully, it never reached us (or, we never reached it . . .)
We reached Upper Alexander, admired the sunset (and I posted pictures to Facebook for the rest of the world to share), and then it was off to Lamb's Canyon.
Sun sets on Friday . . . still more than half of the race remains.
We stopped briefly a couple of times - for a photo op with Andy Kumeda and Catra Corbett, and to put on our headlamps as it got darker.
Light-hearted photo op. :)
We kept our eyes peeled for the tricky hidden right turn onto a single-track trail, just after the power lines crossed over the path. The turn was marked, but in a way that you could have easily missed it if you weren't looking for it. We went back and forth with Shannon Farar-Griefer and her pacer Cheryl in this section, ultimately arriving at Lamb's Canyon at about the same time. This gave me a chance to take a picture of Sniper with Shannon and Cheryl (where all were clearly showing signs of the toll that 50+ miles of this rugged terrain had taken on them), post it to Facebook, and assemble my pack for our trudge to Milcreek.
The start of a long night for some legendary ultrarunners . . .
We set off down a seemingly endless paved road that went under I-80 and climbed to another hard-to-see right turn onto the trailhead. At the trailhead, Sniper wanted the Butt Paste to stave off some potential chafing, but when he went into my pack to look for it, he couldn't find the baggie that I had put it in. This prompted a brief panic, as that baggie also had my iPhone charger in it. I reassured Sniper that we would worry about that later - right now, the focus needed to be on getting through this race, and particularly, this next hellish climb. After a single-track climb and descent, we were dumped unceremoniously onto another paved road, where we walked uphill about three miles against an increasingly cold wind. By the time we reached Milcreek, we were both uncomfortably cold, in spite of our added layers.
I took the relatively rare opportunity at Milcreek to use an outhouse, as well as to empty my pack, and discovered the "lost" baggie - it had been shoved deep into the bottom of the pack, behind the water bladder - no wonder Sniper couldn't find it. We rearranged our layers, put cream on our bare legs to stave off the cold, and thanked Ryan, his wife, and his father for their generous assistance at the aid stations, since they had no opportunity to see us for the rest of the race.
Then, onward, to another cold climb to the next aid station, at Desolation Lake - cheerful indeed. Sniper and I were both starting to fall asleep on our feet at this point, and shots of Mountain Dew could do only so much. They did make us punchy enough to have a flirtatious exchange with a woman at the aid station, where her friend revealed that she also had nipple rings (although regrettably, the brain cells were not firing quick enough to propose a "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" deal at the time - that bright idea sparked later, about 10 minutes down the trail to the next aid station), and then Sniper asked her if she wanted to make out in the bushes, to which she responded that her husband was right there, to which Sniper responded that his back was turned (which it literally was, towards the campfire).
This bit of levity made the climb up to the next aid station, at over 9000 feet, a bit more bearable, not to mention that we felt good about having helped a fallen runner in the previous section by giving him a poncho for warmth as we passed him sleeping by the side of the trail, pacer standing watch. We gave another runner Tums for cramping in this section of the course, because we're good (Samaritans) like that (especially Sniper). When we had finally traversed the windy, cold, exposed ridgeline, we were heartbroken to learn that we still had 4.8 miles to Brighton. I thought that Sniper was upset because he thought that it was only 4 miles, but I later learned that he thought that Brighton was the next aid station, which is a much more severe mental blow.
In spite of dashed hopes, we trekked onward towards lower ground, mostly on roads. For me, this was where lack of sleep was at its worst. I was hallucinating anything and everything on the side of the dark, endless paved road, including a Lufthansa jet (seriously). Of course, being the steadfast pacer, I couldn't tell Sniper this, so when he asked (as he periodically does) how I was doing, I simply said, "Sleepy, but I'll make it." Fortunately, as we reached cell phone signal range again,Facebook on my iPhone provided the stimulus to wake me up, without the need for caffiene (which really says something about the drug-like nature of Facebook). I took and posted a picture of Sniper making the last cruel little climb to the Brighton Lodge, and we were then treated to warmth, real bathrooms, and egg sandwiches and hash browns for breakfast.
Our last climb in the dark, to the Brighton Aid Station
At this point, about 75 miles into the race, it was about 6:30 a.m. - 10.5 hours until the time limit, to go 25 miles. But the climb to Sunset Pass, the highest point on the course, loomed imminently, not to mention the unknown (but probably difficult) terrain beyond the pass. Sniper was beginning to worry about not making it to the finish line on time, but I was ever-optimistic, as was my duty. We made the steep climb to Sunset Pass - 10,200 feet elevation - and descended to the next aid station, having seen one moose along the way, with no injury to show for it, in spite of my flash photography to capture the moment. With daylight in full effect, and the belief that our worst climb was behind us, we left the aid station with high hopes . . .
Good morning, baby moose. :)
Highest marking on the course. I think there might be a nice view, too. :)
Only to be thwarted by a hellishly steep climb, followed by a similarly steep descent. It took a little over an hour for us to travel the next 3.12 miles to our next aid station - worst 5K ever. Now Sniper was really starting to worry that the rest of the course would be equally miserable. It was not helpful when he asked the aid station volunteers about the next section, and their response was "six miles that everybody says runs like 9." Upon hearing this, Sniper took off in a huff, with me in tow. He proceeded to be what we call a "Betty Bitchy Britches" as he complained that the trail was impassible, and that there would be no way to make up time.
Grunting up a short, nasty climb during the "5K" stretch of the course . . .
It was here that the ass-kicking was needed, and I administered it strategically. On the steep, rocky 600-foot descent (called "The Plunge"), I gave him a lecture on fast downhill running, and then proceeded to demonstrate by bombing down the descent at about half-speed, leaving him and several other runners in the dust. It worked, though, because although he begged for me to slow down, he had to speed up to catch me, which, in the process, convinced him that he could do better than he was doing on these trails. Sure enough, about two hours later, we arrived at the last aid station, at around quarter to 1 p.m. - 7 miles remaining, and over four hours to complete the distance.
From there to the finish, the race was anticlimactic, as we both knew finishing was within reach, and there was no need to push too hard and jeopardize completion when we were so close to the goal. We spent the last seven miles climbing briskly up a very east-coast style graded dirt road, to a downhill on a very east-coast style rocky ATV trail (minus the divot in the middle of the trail, but that's to be expected in a state which is apparently obsessed with divots, ever since they realized that Salt Lake City was built in a giant one), to a final clean, gently-downhill single-track trail onto a road to the finish. The last, very East-Coast-style climb
With his signature sprint, Sniper crossed the line in 33 hours, 38 minutes, and 35 seconds, 2 hours, 21 minutes, and 25 seconds ahead of the 36-hour cut-off time. He hugged me, and we proceeded to the Homestead for uncomfortably cold showers before the post-race meal and awards ceremony, where Sniper was honored for his Grand Slam finish along with the remainder of the "Class of 2011." The Grand Slam Class of 2011
All in all, the race was a wild, unique experience. Pacing somebody else is definitely an exercise in unselfish patience, and although I've paced ultras in the past, this was my highest-stakes pacing job yet, and arguably the most challenging. Because of that, I'm proud of Sniper for finishing, and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this once-in-lifetime experience. Wasatch is now on my "must-run" list for 2012, and I'm excited to chase the coveted sub-24-hour Cheetah buckle . . . Not to mention the paper crown that comes along with it. :)
A few more minutes won't hurt, so here was my weekly mileage, 4-10 September 2011:
4 September: 10 miles (75 minutes), after The Ring, narrowly missing the Grand Prix, wearing my beloved LunarGlides
5 September: 8 miles (60 minutes), Patterson Park area
6 September: 2 miles (15 minutes), loop around Patterson Park
7 September: 9 miles (65 minutes), downtownish
8 September: 1 mile (10 minutes), just keeping the streak alive
9 September: 7 miles (90 minutes), climb to Grandeur Peak and back
10 September: 35 miles (780 minutes), pacing Snipes at the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run (end week at 6 a.m. on 11 September)
Total Minutes: 1095
Total Miles: 72