I Ran 100 Miles (and, No, I Still Don't Know Why)
Last month, I wrote this article in which I tried to unpack what makes me want to do something as stupid as heading out into the mountains for a quaint 100 mile run. I unpacked some stuff about how much I’d tied success in ultrarunning with my own self-worth, but in the end, the only “reason” I could come up with was: “I don’t know, because I want to?”
And honestly, it felt like all the answer I needed.
At around 3:30 AM on Saturday, September 25th, as I huddled next to a space heater inside a large canvas tent, my teeth literally chattering like a cartoon skeleton while I tried to get my body temperature high enough to go back out into the 18 degree night, “Because I want to” felt a tad insufficient.
Hi. I ran 100 miles last month. Here’s how it went.
4:30 AM, Friday, September 24:
After dedicating several paragraphs of last month’s piece to choosing a perfect alarm sound, I am pleased to report that on this, the morning of my 100 mile race, I didn’t even set one.
Don’t worry. I’m not reckless. I was sharing a room with a couple friends who were also running the race, and my gut told me I was anxious enough to be up before either of their alarms anyway.
My gut was right. Full of butterflies and frayed nerves, yes—but right all the same.
In case you’re wondering, here’s what goes on in the hotel room of three runners an hour before the start of a 100 mile race:
- 30% “I’m gonna use the bathroom again real quick”
- 20% applying body glide + talking about chafing
- 10% nervous jokes and tired obligatory chuckles
- 35% triple checking supplies
- 5% gas
5:55 AM, Friday
The race began in an unassuming stretch of residential street sandwiched between a city park and a church parking lot. Loud, excited voices filled the cool predawn air, turning this quiet neighborhood in the Logan foothills into a kind of bizarro street party.
I wished my friends good luck and eased back into the middle of the pack, trying to think of anything other than the phrase “100 miles.”
6:04 AM - 7:30 AM
Mile 0.4 - 6:
The loud voices were replaced entirely by the muffled clip-clop of trail shoes on pavement as we wound through the neighborhood for less than a mile before hitting the trail. Here, hundreds of runners funnel into the narrow singletrack trail resulting in mild traffic jams and awkward attempts to politely bypass people ahead of you in a phenomenon known as “the conga line.”
It’s not uncommon for a runner to push real hard in the opening miles of a race to avoid the conga line, only to blow up hours later as a result. I was dead set on not blowing up later, so I found myself doing the conga* for an hour.
(*Like the real conga, the trail race version isn’t actually fun, but awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. It’s a lot of nervously asking the person in front of you if you can squeeze past, making the same half-hearted jokes as you let someone by, directing nervous coughs at traffic jams, etc.)
7:30 AM - 8:50 AM
Mile 6 - 12:
The conga line dissipated toward the end of the initial 6-mile climb. I was able to open things up and it felt really good to run and finally have some space to myself.
I breezed through the first aid station just as the sun crept over the rugged eastern horizon. It felt nice to see the sun, even though I knew we were probably only a few hours away from being enemies.
8:50 AM - 10:00 AM
Mile 12 - 19:
Aaaaaand here’s where everything changed.
Only a few minutes into the first major descent of the race, with no warning or provocation, a sharp pain dug into my left knee. It wasn’t an acute stab or a violent pop. Just one minute it wasn’t there and then the next minute it arrived fully formed.
The good news was A) I immediately knew it was every runner’s favorite old nemesis: an angry IT band, and B) it was the kind of issue that I could run through, it was just going to hurt.
And hurt, it did.
Every step of the six-mile drop into the mile 19 aid station felt like there was glass under my kneecap. My brain went straight into “I told you so” mode, and with every step it repeated my summertime mantra: “I really need to start doing my hip exercises or I might have IT band issues to deal with on race day.” (He did not, in fact, start doing his hip exercises this summer).
I kept hoping that things would “loosen up” after a few miles, but I came limp-trotting into the aid station, and immediately asked for Tylenol.
10:00 AM - 1:42 PM
Mile 19 - 37:
After downing the Tylenol and restocking my supplies, I left the aid station at the same time as a man from the Bay Area and a woman from Portland. Pleasant conversation with a pair of new trail friends, some uphill miles, and our old pal acetaminophen were all enough to ease the knee pain for a time.
Eventually the three of us silently decided it was time to start going at our own paces, and I thoroughly loved this solo stretch.
The weather was perfect, the trees were at their September best, and I felt buoyed up by the joy of being able to explore new, remote places under the power of my own two legs.
Then it was time for another big descent and my knee went from bad to worse.
1:42 PM - 3:35 PM
Mile 37 - 45:
I half-hopped, half-limped my way into the mile 37 aid station, suddenly feeling like things maybe weren’t going super great after all.
On top of the IT band issue, the weather that had once felt balmy now felt oppressively hot. The sugary gels and chews had stopped tasting adequate and started threatening to turn my stomach at any moment.
An aid station volunteer offered me a cup of instant mashed potatoes mixed with hot broth. It tasted like renewal, and I was able to leave the aid station at a healthy trot.
Somewhere around mile 40, I thought about my dog’s mortality and started weeping. Not long after that, an old man in a pickup truck told me I was doing great and I welled up again because it made me happy that a stranger was saying something nice to another stranger.
I can only assume at this point my body thought it was physically dying and was sending a flood of every single hormone and chemical through my brain as a result.
3:35 PM - 6:00 PM
Mile 45 - 51:
I left the Mile 45 aid station, crossed Highway 89, and started a long, sustained climb toward Tony Grove. Going uphill meant I got a break from the knee pain, and I started to feel kind of okay again.
The trail took me through breathtaking stands of aspens and bigtooth maples that painted a gradient of my favorite shades of yellow, orange, and red (and I only wept at the trees once, which I took as a big win).
I crossed the halfway mark shortly before sunset, officially surpassing the farthest point I’ve run in my entire life.
And now I just needed to run another 50 miles.
6:00PM - 8:58 PM
Mile 51 - Mile 62:
This part sucked.
There were no aid stations between mile 45 and 62, easily the longest such stretch of the race, and I ran out of water about 8 miles too early.
That’s when things really started to turn.
The sun disappeared behind Naomi Peak and the landscape began fading away into twilight. With the daylight went my disposition.
All I could think about was the next aid station. My feet were on fire and desperate for a fresh pair of socks. My kneecap had become nothing more than a shard of glass. It’d gotten cool enough for me to put on a jacket but I was more thirsty than at any point during the heat of midday.
I took a sharp left turn at Mile 60 and the trail faded into an open rocky field. The next aid station was less than two miles away, and I kept scouring the distant darkness, pleading for the twinkling lights of the aid station to materialize and growing more frustrated each time it refused.
8:58 PM - 1:40 AM
Mile 62 - 76:
I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to see anything as I was to see that aid station.
My dad and brother were waiting for me there, and I’d fallen far behind schedule, so they were both overflowing with palpable relief and nervous energy.
My brother found me a fresh pair of socks (if you haven’t put on a fresh pair of socks 62 miles into a run, I highly recommend it), a friend grabbed some hot food, my dad refilled my water bottles, and another friend updated me on the status of the friends ahead of me. It was my own personal pit crew and it got me back on my feet and feeling completely renewed.
I left the aid station, this time with my dad, who joined me as my pacer. Running with a pacer for portions of a 100 mile race is a fairly common practice, and it was something my Dad and I were both really looking forward to.
We talked about the race, about old mountain adventures and favorite movies, we laughed at the insane swings in temperature we faced (from 30 degrees to 50 degrees and back to 30, over and over again).
My dad was my entry point to running. He’s always been at his happiest when out on a run, especially in the mountains, and it was incredibly special to be able to have him—at age 64, mind you—be a part of this.
1:40 AM - 3:57 AM
Mile 76 - 82:
The descent into the Beaver Mountain Lodge aid station aggravated my knee and I hobbled into the aid station feeling pretty tired. I left my Dad here and we planned for him to join me from the last aid station to the finish. (He was full of parental concern at this point, and I had to talk him out of staying with me for the entire rest of the race).
My friend Katie caught me shortly after the aid station, looking incredibly strong. It was nice to have friendly company for a little while, and I even got this nice picture of me crossing the Utah/Idaho border in the middle of the night.
Shortly after this picture, though, is when the wheels came completely off.
I’d decided against grabbing a thicker jacket from my drop bag at the previous aid station, thinking that my long-sleeved running shirt and light windbreaker would be enough to keep me warm.
The next section featured a steady climb up Sink Hollow, a frigid little draw not far north from the infamously cold Peter Sinks. I was too tired and in too much pain to push hard enough to keep my blood flowing, and I could feel my body temperature begin to plummet.
My body was shivering uncontrollably as I practically crawled the two miles to the next aid station. This one was not accessible to crews, so it was just me, a large canvas tent, a camping chair, and a space heater.
I simply couldn’t stop my body from shaking. I was glad I was the only one in the tent because I was spasming to the point where it looked almost comical.
It took 20 minutes before I’d stopped trembling long enough to move again. I was seriously worried that unless conditions changed that I might not even make it to the next aid station, but there was only one way to find out. So I pulled myself out of the camping chair, took a deep breath, and ventured back into the icy outside air.
3:57 AM - 5:21 AM
Mile 82 - 86:
Frosted sagebrush leaves sparkled under the light of my headlamp as I trotted out of the aid station. The pace made the temperature almost tolerable, but I knew I couldn’t keep it up for too long.
Fortunately it was only a mile and a half before the trail took a sharp turn onto a ridgeline where the air was at least thirty degrees warmer than the basin below.
I may have shouted a loud “THANK YOU” into the predawn sky, but I couldn’t say for sure.
5:21 AM - 8:11 AM
Mile 87 - 94:
The air was warmer, but my body temperature still felt cold. I was glad, then, to see my brother waiting for me at the next aid station with a big blanket. I wrapped myself in it like a breakfast burrito and sat while he refilled my water bottles and woke my dad, who exited his truck dressed in full race gear.
He told me he was changing his plans and joining for the rest of the race from here instead of the last aid station.
Later he told me that he’d decided if my response to this was anything other than a forceful “No, it’s fine, I’ve got it!” then he was coming the last 14 miles.
My weak and unconvincing “Are you sure?” was just as good as “PLEASE COME WITH ME I MIGHT PHYSICALLY DIE.”
And it sure felt like I died during this section. I’d spent a lot of energy shivering, my knee had graduated to hurting during uphill sections, and I was starting to realize that I’d been awake for over 24 hours. At some moments it felt like I was literally sleepwalking.
Once again I felt myself overjoyed to have my dad with me. He was the right kind of solid, consistent support I needed. Supportive, but not overly-supportive. Concerned, but not overly-concerned. He matched my pace, from zombie-like shuffle to brisk walk, and kept me moving forward.
Soon the sun was peeking back over the eastern ridgeline. I thought about how I’d last seen it ducking behind a peak some 35 miles ago and the earth felt weird and small, yet wide and beautiful. I tried to not tear up in front of my dad.
8:11 AM - 9:57 AM
Mile 94 - 101: (note — this year a slight change to the course changed the Bear 100 to the Bear 101)
This was it. The last aid station.
Ever the top-notch crew chief, my brother wasted no time fetching me a couple of the best tasting lukewarm quesadillas in the history of the planet and a cup of Coke (the breakfast of champions).
The final stretch after the final aid station involved a short, but steep, climb up to 9,000 feet. Annoyed, inspired, and excited, I pushed hard up this climb, somehow finding a second (or fourteenth?) wind in the process.
Reaching the top of the climb, we were greeted by the startlingly turquoise-blue water of Bear Lake below. It glowed like some giant banner marking the world’s largest finish-line.
I began the final descent at a light run that felt like a full-on sprint.
“Who is this guy and what did he do to the Justin from three hours ago?” my dad shouted from behind me.
I just wanted to be done. So what if my knee was practically screaming for me to stop? I hadn’t listened to it for the last 96 miles, after all.
The human body is bizarre. I don’t exaggerate when I say I was DONE a few hours earlier. I couldn’t force my legs to move any faster than a very slow limp. And yet here I was, running down the final steep descent, feeling like I might actually finish this damn thing after all.
Just to keep things spicy, my dad took a violent tumble at mile 99, cutting open a gash on his arm and making it hard for him to breathe for the last couple of miles, but eventually we exited the trail onto the gravel road signaling the home stretch.
We could hear the finish line before we could see it, and I was overwhelmed with a flood of emotion.
I wrote last month that the problem with tying achievement to self-worth is the threat of failure tends to paralyze you. I’d been paralyzed into thinking I’d never run a 100-miler.
I’d think about lacing up my shoes after all these years away from the sport to end up having a “bad” race. One where an injury flared up early on because I hadn’t gotten into the kind of shape I should have. One where I’d spend the latter portion of the race getting passed by dozens of runners instead of the other way around. One where I’d cross the finish line and feel like I was less than because it didn’t go a very specific way.
And, of course, I had exactly that kind of race and exactly none of that held true when I crossed the finish line after 27 hours and 47 minutes on the trail.
On the other side of that line, both literally and figuratively, there were only friends and family cheering me on. The people without whom I wouldn’t have been able to start this race, let alone finish it.
To bring it back to the big question I tried to answer last month: “why do I do this?” After running 100 miles, the answer is still mostly “I don’t know.” But one thing that’s a lot clearer now is that I love doing it because of how it brings me closer to other people.
“How did you do that?”
“How is that even possible?”
These are the questions I used to ask all the time, and now they’re ones that people ask me. And as I sit here at my desk weeks later, my IT band still not fully healed, the specifics of the race blurring into non-specifics, I don’t have a very satisfying answer.
In fact, the closest thing I have to an answer sounds a bit trite and more than a little corny. But, I don’t know, sometimes something sounds trite and corny only because it’s deeply and universally true.
So, I guess the only answer I have is this: I don’t know how I did it—but I certainly didn’t do it alone.