I am not exactly sure why but Iíve never taken the time to document the plan I used to prepare for the 2003 Grand Slam of Ultra running nor the method I used to successfully complete it. I felt prompted to do so today as I received an email from a friend asking for advice to help him with his attempt at the same series this summer. No ultra runner can really consider him or herself anything but a novice. Competing in these type of distances on the varying terrains and levels of difficulty that each course offers puts us all on a level playing field. A novice myself Iím certain that since my ideas and methods worked for me then they could work just as well for someone else. I write this summary as a way for others to understand the methods and practices I used to realize my dream.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of my plans for the summer of 2003 was being chosen as a participant for the Western States 100 via the lottery system. The odds of being selected through the lottery were less than 50% since there were only 350 slots available. The odds were low due to the overflow of people who applied not to mention the fact that several slots were already allotted to elite runners. I never once worried about whether my name would be pulled out of the hat because Iím a confident guy. Instead I felt a sense of excitement as I anticipated my name being listed on the website. At 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of December in 2002 the names were posted on the event website. As I knew all along my name was listed along with the other one 349 people that would tow the line in Squaw Valley, California in June 2003. That same day I immediately began a grueling, tedious, disciplined yet conservative training program that would get me to States uninjured and in excellent physical condition. In 2001 I had made the Western States cut as well and planned to attempt the Grand Slam. However due to my foolish training methods I injured myself to the point where I could not run. Subsequently I had to bail out of all four races losing the investment of time, energy and money that I had sacrificed toward achieving my goal. It took me a year to heal, rehabilitate and become strong enough to consider once again making an attempt at the goal that I held near and dear to my heart.
I became obsessed, possessed, and focused on my preparations for the series of races. While on occasion I sometimes did let thoughts of all four enter my mind but I tried to concentrate mainly on Western States since it was the first in the series. The major concern I had was the injury potential of training for events that posed challenges that would be hard to simulate in the flatlands of Delaware. Time was a factor because I spent anywhere from 3-6 hours a day six days a week running and exercising. I did not have time to travel three hours to the south where I could find mountains close to what I would face in California, Colorado and Utah. I was obsessed and absolutely had no choice but to come home from work every single day and start my 1 hour and 30 minute workout prior to the 14-21 miles I would run afterwards. Each and every day was important and if I missed one it would no doubt jeopardize my opportunity to be successful in my attempt. I may have gone overboard but that was my thought process. The fact that I had no mountains, no rocks or no roots to speak of meant that I had to train by running as many miles as my body could stand. However because I had been injured previously I realized I had to identify my breaking point and train right up against it. Previous experience told me that my body could withstand up to 90 miles per week before it started to break down. I cut that back two miles and ran consistently the entire winter averaging 88 miles per week. I used a series of strength exercises, which included many push-ups and sit-ups along with some weight training to build the muscles in my arms as a way to supplement my training program. Even though I long ago started the strength exercises on an obsessive-compulsive whim I found it to be an important factor in my success as a runner. Itís just as important for a runner to have strong arms and abdominals as it is for him or her to have strong legs. My training program was in place and I was at it full force.
Since my injury in 2001 came as a result of an effort I put toward a February race I made the decision not to participate in any races leading up to Western States. I trained entirely on my own on main roads, back roads and my favorite trail in Lums Pond State Park. I consistently ran a long run of 21 miles each week using the same route every time. I also ran two 50K training runs alone in Lums Pond. I filled out the rest of the week with runs of 14 miles each day never exceeding 88 total miles and always making sure I had one day off.
June arrived and my heart pounded mightily in anticipation of what I was about to do. I was in awe of the history of Western States and the other participants and couldnít wait until I placed my feet on what I considered sacred ground. When my brother, mother and I arrived in Squaw Valley I was wide eyed and overwhelmed by the mountainous area. The mountains were beautiful and different, but looked brutal. I had some experience under my belt as I had run in seven one hundred milers up to this point having successfully finished six of them. In fact, I consider, even to this day, one of the courses to be the toughest in the U.S. I had finished that race but still I was nervous about my upcoming race in California. When we reached race headquarters in Squaw I felt intimidated, scared and downright out of place. I met people that I considered celebrities and in reality in the world of ultrarunning indeed they were. The Boston Marathon, which I had participated in 2 times prior to this, was nothing compared to Western States. My heart was pounding so hard that I felt my eye balls bulging out of my head. In fact my blood pressure was 140 over 100 and the medical staff made me settle down and be retested before allowing me to receive my race packet.
My family and I stayed in a hotel 40 miles East in Reno, Nevada. It was a very nice hotel but I was so hyped up I barely slept a wink the night before the race. We drove the next day to Squaw Valley for the early start where the temperature was barely hovering above the freezing mark. One of the unique things about States is that since the course is point to point and has a net elevation loss over 100 miles the temperature can range anywhere between freezing and the upper 100ís. I had the good fortune of facing just that range of temperatures as later that day I heard the thermometer topped out at 105į in the canyons. Anywhere else in the world in would have been a funny sight for someone to see my mom putting sun tan lotion on me in the dark in freezing cold weather. I knew what to expect or at least I thought I did and I was prepared.
At 5 a.m. we lined up and I began my journey to become the first person from Delaware to complete the grand slam of ultrarunning. Even though nervous and intimidated it still didnít stop me from feeling confident in my ability to be successful. States provided many challenges that had never been offered to me in any running event Iíve ever participated in. The challenge started almost immediately as I felt the effect of the high altitude when we reached the high point of 8500í somewhere around mile 8. I struggled to maintain my balance as I became dizzy and sluggish. The downhill sections crushed me as I couldnít build up the speed that others around me seemed to be able to find. I discovered early that focus would be needed in order to safely make my way through the rugged, downhill terrain. I identified an early mistake in that I had not planned on using my energy to think and I paid a price for that poor planning. Between the effect of the altitude and the energy I had to expend to focus on my footing I was trashed by the time I reached Robinsons Flat at mile 25. I could barely stand up straight as one of the volunteers assisted me on the scale. The reading on the scale was more bad news as I had gained several pounds. The volunteer asked me a few questions to make sure I was okay. I really wasnít okay but I somehow faked my way through. When I reached the crew area where my family was I refused to look my mother in the eye, as I knew she would worry about the dazed look I had at the time. My brother assumed the role of leader he would become familiar for. He took control and became the calming influence that I needed. He knew in my heart I wanted to compete but now it was about survival. Before leaving he told me there were no options but to survive.
My goal over the next several miles was to regain consciousness while running at a pace that would keep me in the race ahead of the cut-offs. At the time I had no idea of what hyponatremia was but looking back now Iím pretty sure I was suffering from the effects. Luckily I ran alongside an experienced runner who advised me to stop drinking until I urinated. He assured me that I would feel much better as I progressed downward on the course and that my body would function normally again at the lower altitude. I did as he said and sure enough thirty minutes later I started to release fluids which in turn elevated my spirits and increased my energy level. My recovery came just as I was approaching the canyons where I would face the biggest climbs and the hottest temperatures of the day. I felt great and I was ready to roll that is until major challenge number two came into play. I felt a burning sensation on the bottom of my left foot as I climbed to the top of Devils Thumb somewhere around mile 40. Instead of stopping and tending to the problem I continued to climb. Every step of the way the pain intensified but I continued to ignore it. This was my biggest mistake of the entire race and one in which I would have to deal with the rest of the day and night. By the time I reached Michigan Bluff at mile 50 my left foot was mincemeat and my right was burning as well. I had no choice but to make a pit stop in to the medical area where the podiatrist could pop the blisters and wrap my feet with duct tape. Mistake number three occurred when I didnít allow the doc to work on my other foot. I lost some significant time and didnít want to lose more. I hobbled out of the medical tent and hoped to be able to work through the pain as I made my way to Forresthill School at mile 62. It was a no go though as by the time I reached the school I was once again hobbling like a 90 year old man. Again I entered the medical area this time allowing the doc to work on my other foot. Hell if nothing else at least I would be well balanced. Both feet were shot so there would be no limp. I used the short jaunt down Forresthill Road to California Street to get used to the pain in both feet. I gritted my teeth and moved along at a pace that was slow but consistent. The doc told me that it would be painful but if I wanted the finish bad enough I could pull it off.
Iím certain that the adrenaline my body produced allowed me to manage the pain as I made my way toward Auburn and the finish line with a look of determination on my face instead of a grimace. I found the miles between 79 and 92 to be the easiest of the race. Compared with the rest of the course itís generally flat and smooth with the exception of a few rocky sections. I ran through the night mostly alone and a little spooked with the knowledge that there were cougars in the woods watching me as I ran by. I jumped at every noise and paid attention to each step and ran far away from anything that even resembled a snake. As the darkness disappeared and the sun rose I understood the meaning of a second life. Nighttime brings out the sounds of death as the zombie runners crawl through the woods. The sun however brings life and with life comes the energy to run some more. The highway 49 crossing was a big deal to me because I had read so much about it and never thought I would be a part of it. Leaving Highway 49 I now had the energy to kick it in gear down the hill to No Hands Bridge, up the final climb, through the residential area and into the football stadium where I finished. I was happy and excited but almost immediately upon crossing the finish line I was depleted and in severe pain. I was covered in dirt from head to toe and my feet were covered in deep blisters from front to back. I was able to hobble down to the shower but once done I collapsed on the football field where my mom and brother had to escort me to the car. I was unable to attend the awards ceremony so my brother picked up my finishers buckle and we then made our way back to our hotel. I had to be helped into the room and into bed. Later that night as I crawled into the bathroom I wondered how in the world I would heal in time for Vermont in three weeks. Doubt was there but I pushed it aside knowing that this would just be part one of four times where I would have to overcome adversity in order to achieve my goal.
I returned home from States with swollen, blistered feet and also a bad case of poison oak. I rested for a week while icing my feet and soaking in Epsom salts in an attempt to get them to heal quickly. The following Sunday I began to follow a scripted training program that would keep me fit and happy between races. I continued to run 6 days a week but only 5-7 miles each day. In retrospect due to the condition of my feet I probably should have allowed more time to rest between Western States and Vermont. My training runs were very painful at first but as the days progressed so did the healing. I believe training in this condition also built up my threshold for pain, which would come in handy in later races. Yeah I find a way to justify anything even pain. I spent the rest of my time in between races reading John Vonhoffís book "Fixing your Feet". I found numerous ideas as to how to help the healing process and also reduce the risk of recurrence in Vermont. I purchased trail shoes that fit tighter so there would be no potential of my feet sliding up and down in the shoes. Also I learned how to properly tape the bottoms of my feet with duct tape. Finally and most importantly I learned that proper hydration is the best way to stave off blisters.
Vermont is considered the easiest race out of the four in the grand slam series but I knew I could not allow myself to become complacent. Motivation came in the form of emotional thoughts of my nieces and nephews. I could never say Iíve ever been much of an uncle but this was my opportunity to have an impact on their lives. I hoped that my attempt would help them as they got older to never back down from a challenge and never be afraid to initiate one. By the time I found the start line in Vermont I was fired up and ready to go.
The Green Mountains looked like anthills compared to the Sierra Nevadas of California. I was subdued yet confident. Running 100 miles is hard no matter what the terrain so the fact that the mountains looked less rugged was only a small consolation. The weather could and would be a factor as the predicted temperature was to be in the mid-70ís with high humidity. The 105į temperature I faced at Western States gave me confidence in my ability to persevere through heat but my ability to run through high humidity was an unknown and gave me reason for concern. I allowed concerns to pass quickly through, as I knew that if I obsessed on any of them it could be detrimental to my success. I let them pass easily never once fighting one off. I was certain that I would react positively and have the ability to resolve any issue as it occurred during the race. Hell there was no way I could sit back and identify and resolve each problem I could potentially have while running. It would have taken too much time, energy, and effort to do so. I adopted the motto of the Nike commercial "Just do it".
Vermont had the most beautiful starting area of all four events. The host was an owner of a magnificent farm where he allowed us to have our pre-race and post race festivities. The start line was directly in front of his house so while we waited for the 4 a.m. start he serenaded us with piano music.
The effects of Western States still upon me my goals for Vermont were not that aggressive. I was certain that I had the potential of finishing under 24 hours without having to gamble or risk too much. Obviously the main goal was to finish under the 30-hour time limit but I wanted the silver buckle awarded only to those who achieve the sub-24 hour finish. At the start the only thing that could jeopardize my goal was the condition of my feet and how they would hold up as the race progressed.
Through 40 miles I had no troubles other than the fact that the shoes I wore were too tight. Downhills were brutal because my feet had no where to move upon impact. The pain was minimal compared to the pain of the blisters that I had in States. Still the pain was enough of an irritant to prompt me to change my shoes at this point. My mother and brother did an awesome job of keeping me focused and keeping my mind on the task at hand. Normally my mind wanders but on this day I kept it in line and only had thoughts of the finish. I used the strategy of a driver in a NASCAR event as I only wanted to make it to every pit stop/crew area safely where my mom and brother could put me back together again and point me in the right direction. At mile 40 my brother already knew I needed to change shoes so he had them ready for me. My brother had a major impact on my performance at each race as he always seemed to know exactly what I needed and never once allowed thoughts of failure to enter my mind.
I felt great physically but the humidity was taking an unknown toll on my body. I became aware of the impact at the first weight check where I had lost several pounds. I was allowed to proceed but was instructed by the medical staff to take it easy and drink plenty of water. I was also told that if I had lost more weight upon my return later in the race that I could be asked to sit down or even removed from the event itself. That put a bit of a scare in me, as I certainly didnít want my summer to end in Vermont because I didnít hydrate properly. I did as told over the next 25 miles but still wasnít sure whether my weight was back in check or if I had lost more. It was hard to tell because I had been feeling okay all day. I mentioned my concern to my brother at the aid station prior to the next one where my weight would again be checked. He told me not to worry because he had a sure-fire idea that would get me through without a problem. Thoughts of what his plan could be kept my mind busy over the next few miles. As I approached a sign that indicated the aid station was nearby I saw my brother in the distance holding what appeared to be a jacket. The sun was setting and the air was getting cooler so I figured he was just prepared in case I asked for something warm. When I reached the point where he was standing he yelled for me to stop. I looked and wondered what his motive was but soon found that this was just part of a plan he had devised to get me through the weight check in. He had a peculiar smile on his face as he silently handed me the jacket. He told me not to say a word but to just put it on and head to the scale. As soon as I took it from his hands I knew exactly what his plan was. He had placed a heavy rock in each pocket, which would supplement my own weight and most assuredly get me through the weigh in with out any problem. I wondered what the implications would be if I were to get caught but the humor of the idea overwhelmed any worries. I had a stupid grin on my face as I approached the scales to place my feet upon it. To my delight the volunteer recording my weight announced that I had regained the lost weight and even put on one. In reality the rocks werenít needed but still it was mind settling to know ahead of time everything would be okay.
My difficulty with weight was the final challenge that had to be met so once done I cruised to the finish. I had the same sense of pride as I do after finishing every race but I knew that there was still work to be done. At least this time I walked away with no major injuries or complications from the race and in my goal time of under 24 hours. I now had four weeks to allow my body to heal from the effects of both Western States and Vermont before the challenge of Leadville, Colorado.
I used the time between Vermont and Leadville wisely. I rested for one week prior to running again and then only ran moderate distances of 5-7 miles over the next 6 days. The entire Leadville 100 course is run at 10,000 feet or greater so there is no air. All of the research I had done indicated that my best opportunity to be successful meant acclimation at that altitude for at least two weeks before the race. Two weeks at altitude would leave me at 85% acclimated which would be enough to get me to the finish as long as I took it easy. As planned I arrived in Denver two weeks ahead of time. Instead of directly making my way 100 miles to the west I stayed in the area for a day to see how my body would react to 5000í. I did my normal work out and went for a jog through the area just to test things out. Not surprisingly I reacted well. I was told ahead of time that most do not feel the effects of altitude until 9000 feet is reached. Since I struggled at 8500í in Western States I was worried that maybe I was in the minority and lower altitudes might affect me. Now feeling confident I headed out to Leadville the following day.
The scenery on the drive from Denver to Leadville was astonishing! The mountains though just as high as the Sierra Nevadaís looked much more rugged. Where pine trees covered most of the mountains in California the mountains in Colorado were barren or so they seemed from a distance. As I got closer to my final destination the mountains seemed to get higher and nastier. Pointed, jagged rock formations 10-14,000 feet high with peeks covered in snow. The beautiful sight kept my thoughts positive and I never once became concerned about how I would navigate these structures come race day. Ahead of me laid rest, relaxation, and overall fun for two solid weeks.
Upon entering the small town of Leadville I became aware of just how deprived the area is. Once a booming mining town now just a group of people trying to find a way to survive. The once a year 100-mile bike and trail race are an economic boom for the meager town. I felt out of place as though I entered a time warp and was now in an old western town where gunfights and bar brawls were the norm. In reality the people were very nice and atmosphere was quite charming. There were very few hotels and since I waited until the last minute I lost out on obtaining a room. I could have opted for a room in the Hostel but instead I chose to camp in a public facility closer to the trailhead entering the mountains. I was there to relax but also I had business to tend to and being in the mountains put me in the right frame of mind.
I followed a plan of working out in the crisp air and then running different routes through the area in order to help my body acclimate. I tested my self after four days of acclimation by climbing 14,000í to the top of Mt. Massive. I ran at a nice easy pace with little trouble at first but once I started to ascend my run turned to a jog then a hike and then a crawl as I trudged toward the top. I was sucking air violently and several times had to stop to bend over to regain my faculties. Every time I stopped I wondered how the hell I was going to make the double crossing of Hope Pass. When I reached the top of Massive the weather changed dramatically and a storm came roaring through. Standing on top of the barren mountain with lightning strikes nearby on either side and small pellets of hail hitting me on the head I forgot I couldnít breathe and ran hard back to tree line where I would be protected.
My next test, a 10k competitive race, arrived one week before the 100-mile race. The course was a 3.1-mile out back following the exact path of the 100 miler. The first mile left town on a rolling, paved road and then it led us down hill on a wide dirt road for the next 2 miles. I was there to test myself so I gave my best effort. I ran pretty dam hard and found myself out of breath upon reaching the halfway point in 19 minutes and change. The return would be a struggle not only because of the beating the first 3 put on me but also because it was uphill. The final product was the slowest 10k I have ever run in 44 minutes and a few seconds. I didnít care because I was there to work and this certainly qualified as work. I felt pretty good about the effort and found myself to have placed pretty high amongst the other competitors. In fact I brought home a piece of hardware from the event that I never expected. It was fun, satisfying but yet somewhat concerning considering the fact I was spent after 6.2 miles of running. Still I didnít let feelings of despair overwhelm me because I knew I would rise to the occasion come race day.
My mom and brother arrived later in the week. We pitched a bigger tent and found time to bond with one another while planning for the third leg of the grand slam. I had an awesome time alone as I read four John Grisham books and declared myself a lawyer afterwards. I was also able to read several race reports in order to gain a better perspective of the course and devise a plan best suited for me. My mind was straight, my plan was set and it was now time to let it loose.
The night before the run we attended the pre-race meal, which the entire town of Leadville had the opportunity to share in free of charge. The food was fantastic and the speech the race director made was very motivational and inspiring. Our fun was short lived, as once the meal was over it was time to focus our attention on the following dayís events. I slept restlessly awakening well before my 3:00 a.m. alarm was to go off. Having been a part of 9 one hundred-mile events prior to this one I was used to the nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was very anxious as my mom and I drove the three miles from the campground into town where the race would start. I can never seem to look my mom in the eye at the start of a hundred miler. Itís almost as if the road ahead of me is leading me down the path of death and destruction. I can manage my own thoughts but Iím certain I would be overwhelmed with emotion if I knew what was on her mind.
I was well aware ahead of time of the challenges that the Leadville course posed. The climbs would be moderate and the terrain virtually smooth but there would be little air to breath and minimal aid. My main concern was pace because I had to find a balance between meeting the aggressive cut-offs and proper breathing. In advance of going out to Colorado I contacted a friend who did the slam the previous year. He told me what to expect and how to handle each situation. The best advice he gave me was to mule as much food and water as possible and to relax to allow pace to come naturally. It was still a scary proposition, as Leadville is known to wear on runners allowing less than 50% of the starters to finish. The cut-offs are aggressive, the air is thin, the weather can be erratic and Hope Pass is brutal.
Time at every major checkpoint, especially early on, is critical. Leadville is a race where the competitors must always be consistent and maintain focus throughout. The over all time limit of 30 hours is sufficient but only if the runner is well organized and resourceful.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I made it through 13 miles and easily conquered the cut-off time. When I left there I was able to get into a rhythm and follow a pattern that would lead me from aid station to aid station with time to spare. The next couple of miles through Hagermanís Pass was the first difficult part of the course and that was quickly followed by a climb up Sugarloaf Mountain. I faced my first challenge as I traversed the flat road section between the fish hatchery and half-moon campground. Only 20 some odd miles into the run and I was walking without a real obstacle in the way. It was pretty disconcerting considering the hardest part was yet to come. Once through the campground the course led us back on soft trail where I came back to life. I ran the several miles into Twin Lakes feeling dam good and ready to tackle Hope Pass.
The experience I had climbing Mt. Massive helped a lot as it gave me confidence on the climb up Hope Pass. Actually I didnít even realize I was on Hope until someone told me about halfway up. The outgoing climb is long but not very steep and the footing is excellent. The climb coming back is opposite in that itís very steep and rocky and very hard. Hope Pass is to date the toughest climb I have ever had to make. When I reached the aid station about a mile or so from the top the weather became a factor. It started to rain and hail and the wind howled like Iíve never heard before. The sky was threatening but I gambled leaving Twin Lakes without a raincoat or any protective clothing from foul weather. My morale took a beating as I wondered how I would survive through this weather if it continued. Luckily a volunteer solved my problem before I had time to allow bad thoughts to consume me. She saw I was shivering uncontrollably and offered me a cup of hot soup along with a plastic garbage bag pre-cut for use as a rain jacket. I was still freezing my ass off but her kindness warmed my heart and lifted my spirits. I still had to make my way down Hope and then run a couple of miles into Winfield before the turnaround and I had to do so quickly as not to press the cut-off. Descending Hope Pass was pretty dam tough because of the steep drop and difficult footing. Iím not very good at multi-tasking so I wasnít able to stay focused and get tired too. I chose to stay focused and pushed tiredness aside. Once down, however, the climb and descent took a toll. I struggled on the flat road, which led me into the ghost town of Winfield. I was there well under the cut-off but certainly knew I had no time to spare. My mom and brother had dry clothes and food waiting so I was in and out quickly. It was now time to make my way back to the town of Leadville on the same path but in the opposite direction.
The climb back up Hope was excruciatingly painful. I knew ahead of time that it would be short and steep but couldnít imagine how much energy I would expend to get back up there. Hope Pass is usually the place where the Leadville course takes its victims. I was certain that if I could make it back over into Twin Lakes I would finish. It took a lot of effort but I made it back just before dark. The route that led me from Twin Lakes back into Half Moon Campground almost sealed my fate as a victim of the course. I allowed my mind to stray off the positive and into the negative. I had anticipated the aid station well ahead of time and when it didnít show my energy level decreased and my morale took a beating. I thought of how good it would feel to be lying in a nice warm bed and be able to close my eyes and rest. The goals I had hoped to achieve became unimportant and didnít care that the months of hard work would go to waste. When I finally reached the aid station I was mentally depleted which caused me to be physically tired. I thought of quitting but instead took a seat under cover with the masses of others that fell pray to the effects of Hope Pass. I didnít think but rather I observed the suffering of the others in the tent. Most had severe issues that justified their unsuccessful attempt. I had no such issues so without thought I got my ass up out of the chair and started to run again. Running was the key to waking myself up and getting back on track. I had stopped which slowed my metabolism and also gave my mind more of an opportunity to think logically. I stopped thinking and instead moved instinctively by using a run/walk method all of the way back to the fish hatchery where my brother was there to put a foot up my ass. I told him what I almost did and he forcefully told me he would not allow it. Between my own desire to get this thing over with and fear that my brother would beat the shit out of me I was able to finish is a respectable time. I was happy to walk away from Leadville but realized a big challenge still lay ahead.
I stayed consistent in my training as once again I took one week off of running between Leadville and Wasatch. This time however I only ran for one week before taking the week leading up to the race off. The first two weeks upon my return from Leadville I treated a case of tendonitis in my foot by icing, stretching and soaking in hot water. I was somewhat worried about the condition but since Wasatch was the final race in the series I was certain I could overcome anything.
Even though the Wasatch course ventures into altitudes above 10,000 feet I did not make a decision to arrive early. Most accounts of others indicated that even a person from sea level would be able to withstand the short jaunts above that height. I was confident in my ability overcome any challenge Wasatch may pose. Out of the four races this particular one did worry me the most. The elevation gain of 26,000í over 100 miles would easily surpass anything Iíve ever attempted. The ascents were straight up and down over the mountains without switchbacks to ease the burden of climbing. To top things off I went to the start line not feeling very well. My immune system took a beating and was now letting me know by means of a cold.
Wasatch, like the other three events had an early morning start. The advantage of this particular race being started in the dark is having the opportunity to view the beautiful Salt Lake and surrounding area as the sun rose. I learned very early on that the one and a half days it would take me to traverse this course would be wicked. The climb up Chinscraper Ridge starting at mile three brought me to my knees as I reached the top. When I reached over at the top to pull myself to the other end of the mountain I nearly fell the distance I had just climbed. It was here that I knew I was in deep shit.
The Sierra Nevadaís, Green Mountains, Colorado Rockies and Wasatch Mountains are all quite different. While the Sierras and Rockies intimidated me the Wasatch Mountains looked comparatively tame from a distance. The Sierras and Green Mountains were both covered in trees while the Rockies were jagged, somewhat barren and yes rocky. The Wasatch Mountains donít look high when standing in the city but once up there you realize just how high they are. Despite the research I did my initial reaction once I saw the mountains led me to underestimate the difficulty of the course. Simply put I was wrong!
Eighteen miles into this thing I couldnít breathe or move. I was totally trashed! My brother once again stepped to the forefront and played the role of Knute Rockne and reminded me why I was there. There was no time to whine or complain about how tough it was and he wasnít hearing any of it anyway so I got up and left. I struggled along until the turning point of the race which occurred 30 some odd miles into the event. My brother then led me to the car where my mother was waiting for us. Before I could sit down she handed me her cell phone and told me I needed to talk to the person on the other end. A little confused, I said hello. My 7-year-old nephew, Joey, was on the other end. He said "Please do not quit Uncle Davey, you can win this race" Immediately tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to hold back so I could respond but it was difficult. I found a way to spit out the words that I wouldnít quit and hand the phone back to my mother. I was already feeling a little dizzy from having run 39 miles but this emotional experience caused me to lose my balance and almost fall onto the ground. Luckily, someone caught me before I could fall. My nephew, a child that struggled to survive at birth, asked me not to give up. I remembered sitting in the hospital praying that he would not give up. He did not and he survived. He was now telling me to do the same. Obviously the consequences of giving up were not the same for me but still I needed to be an example. Never give up whether it's life or death or just a run, never give up.
Still very emotional I got up and started to make my way to the next crew checkpoint, mile 53. I had tears in my eyes for the first 2 miles. My nephew made me remember what this was all about for me. I lost focus and he brought me back. This was for my nieces and nephews, I will never quit. This carried me the rest of the way. When I felt pain I remembered his words and blocked it out. When I was tired I remembered his words and continued on. Miles 39 to 53 were the easiest of the whole course for me. The climbs were still relentless but my mind was now where it needed to be.
Around mile 60 as I was descending a long hill when my right knee gave out on me. I had hoped that a knee brace, which I stashed in my drop bag at mile 62, would alleviate the pain but that was not to be. It was now all about how much I wanted this thing and how much pain I was willing to suffer through in order to get it. Every time I had pain I remembered my nephewís words "Please Uncle Davey do not quit" and every time the emotion generated enough energy to allow me to move on.
The rest of the course led me through the zombie land of Brighton where tired and spent runners rested and considered calling it a night. It then led us up to Catherineís Pass, the highest point around mile 80 and then up Grunt Pass where once again I found myself on my knees grasping for roots or limbs to drag myself up the mountain. The final stretch of the course led us down 5000í feet on sections called "The Dive" and "The Plunge". Any other time I probably would have welcomed gravity pushing me forward but the effect of the downward force on my knee caused unbelievable pain. The words of my nephew went through my mind over and over as I descended toward the road which would lead me to the finish. My brother showed up about a mile from the finish and he fittingly ran most of the way with me toward the Homestead Resort where the finish line was located.
Four years of dreaming culminated in a finish where I was physically, emotionally and mentally drained. I had no tears, no smile and no thoughts whatsoever. I had taken a beating but I accomplished what I set out to do. On that day I became the first person in Delaware to complete the grand slam of ultrarunning and one of less than 200 worldwide to do so. What does it take? It takes a highly motivated person who has a high threshold for pain, heals quickly, good organizational skills, uses resources efficiently, disciplined personality, financially secure, understanding family. The final piece of the puzzle to success is having a motivational person by your side. Someone that will care for you, understand you, sacrifice for you and motivate you. My mom and brother filled that role for me and because of them I was able to realize a dream.
Western States-Be aware of the altitude and know how to react to the effects. Be prepared for the steep descents. Sore quads and blisters could be the result. Be prepared for the heat as the temps can and will rise into the lower 100ís. Know the symptoms of hyponatremia and dehydration and understand how to react. Carry water! Take salt when needed and eat. Stay alert at all times and be aware of your surroundings. Cougars, bears and snakes inhabit the area. Poison oak rampant from mile seventy to 97.
Vermont-Do not take the course for granted! Be prepared for heat and humidity. Again know the difference between hyponatremia and dehydration and know how to react.
Leadville: Acclimate two weeks in advance, more if you can. There are some that say arriving at the last minute will work as well but if youíre in the slam ask yourself if youíre willing to gamble. If you do go out early find time to climb some mountains. Both Elbert and Massive are accessible and very good places to train. Run the 10K at max speed to see how youíre progressing. The 100 mile course itself is fairly easy with only two major climbs in Hope Pass and Sugarloaf Mountain but keep in mind both need to be taken twice. Hope is brutal so be prepared for brutal. Carry water and food. Aid is scarce with some stations being 10 miles apart. Low humidity will lead to dehydration quickly and the average humidity in Leadville in August is about 5%. Keep that in mind. Donít concern yourself with how many participants are involved or the final finishing rate. Be confident in your ability and your chances of being one of the finishers. Almost half of the competitors are first time Ultra runners and some have never run beyond the 10K distance. You will see people bailing 13 miles into this thing. Yes itís hard but if you have experience you can do it!
Wasatch-Keep in mind that 36 hours is a very generous time limit for this particular course. Yes itís very hard but there is plenty of time. If you get hurt, get sick, get tired, or whatever just relax and take your time. Again aid at times is far apart and in fact water may not be available until 18 miles into this thing. Course markings lack at times so stay alert. Never follow the person in front of you. Youíre there to finish so just do it and donít let anything get in your way.
Tend to your problems immediately in every race!!