In February 2018, when I finally earned my BQ marathon time, I considered what my long term running goals might be.
I had been running for over 10-years and had pondered the idea of an ultra-marathon for a while, as it intrigued me. I knew what running a marathon felt like, but what about an ultra? Additionally, I wasn’t quite sure how an ultra-marathon was run, let alone any course I should try.
For anyone not so familiar with long distance running, an ultra-marathon is any race distance longer than the standard 26.2 marathon miles and is almost exclusively run on outdoor trails.
There’s several ultra-marathon options runners can choose from with the most common distances being 50k (31 miles), 50 miles and 100 mile distances. There are even some ultra-marathon races over 200 miles. Essentially there is no limit! 🤪
Runners race along the designated course from aide-station to aide-station before a preset cutoff time, navigating the terrain as safely and efficiently as they can in an effort to finish as quickly as possible.
For me, there were a few glaring obstacles to an ultra marathon race.
1- Crohn’s Disease is a big X-factor. I had to seriously consider if it was even a good idea for me to go running off solo on wilderness trails with the possibility my GI system could shut down. After all, grit can only take you so far despite training when your body’s “done.” If I can’t take in fluids or eat, I can’t keep running. With Crohn’s Disease, every day is frustratingly different.
2- Finding someone who’d actually pace me. I know a lot of great folks who run, but not everyone is interested in running that far or that long… let alone with me. 🤷🏻♀️
3- Finding the right race. Traveling and racing is challenging. Everything from your schedule, the food you eat, where you sleep, even the weather can completely change with travel. Adaptability is important when running out of town. Too many variables might mean an expensive disaster.
4- Managing my poor sense of direction. Trust me, I’m not being modest when I say I have a REALLY bad sense of direction, just ask my family. 😆 I have gotten lost on trails before and it completely stresses me out. Trails, for all their beauty and solitude can look completely different coming and going from opposite directions. If I got lost, it could have some serious consequences AND I’d be paying a very expensive SAR (search and rescue) bill.
After many long conversations with my good friend and ultra-marathoner Rachel Moody; in January 2019 I made the commitment and signed up for the Squaw Peak 50 Ultra Marathon on June, 8th.
Saturday morning I was up early at 2am to carpool for our 4:00am start time. A cold front had moved in the day before so I spent all night attempting to sleep while listening to the howling wind. 30mph gusts with temps in the 40’s at my house could spell misery at higher elevation. Thankfully the forecast was dry.
When Rachel and I made it to Provo, I was relieved to feel no wind so I left a couple of clothing layers in the car. We dropped our race bags in their corresponding aide-station piles (mine were full of food, micro-spikes, trekking poles, and horse lineament) checked in, hit the bathrooms and were off with headlamps at 4am.
The Squaw Peak race course headed West for just over 2 miles along the Provo River Trail, passing Bridal Veil Falls until we hit the Bonneville Shore Line Trail (BST) and then proceeded to head up towards Spanish Fork Canyon and the 25- mile turn around.
Miles always pass quickly in the dark because you can only see as far as your light and the person in front you. We reached aid-station 1- at Hope Camp ground feeling great.
Ultra-marathon aide stations are simply amazing. They have the best volunteers that will often camp out in order to be up early and have everything ready for runners. Quick calories, electrolytes, water, even pancakes and sausages were available!
I can’t eat anything like that, as gluten doesn’t digest well in my body normally, let alone while running so I carry my own food and stick with things that are already partially digested.
Foods like applesauce pouches, crushed up nut bars, fresh fruit and my personal favorite- real chicken broth. Not the bullion ramen junk, but real chicken bone broth I carry and sip along with my water. It gives me protein, trace minerals, salt and water all in one.
After a bathroom stop at the last outhouse on the course, we headed back out. The sun was rising quickly and we hit the second aide-station at Rock Canyon just after the 13-mile or half marathon mark. I made myself eat a protein bar even though I didn’t really feel like it, because it knew I had to eat then for miles I’d be running much later. I snagged a couple pieces of watermelon, changed into shorts and decided against micro-spikes for the next 6 miles of snow ahead.
The weather was still freezing (my hands were numb despite my gloves) but thankfully there was no wind. I grabbed my trekking poles out of my drop bag and we headed back out. The next 7 miles or so was a combination of streams, snow run-off, snow pack, avalanche destruction, mud and beautiful scenery.
Our elevation climbed as we bagged Buffalo Peak and reached the highest portion of the course and looked forward to the opportunity to exercise some down hill muscles after the Camel Pass aide-station.
I’ve done a lot of snow crossings before when I’ve climbed peaks.
(Mount Shasta in Northern California is a 14,000 ft volcanic peak with a permanent glacier. After summiting that mountain twice, using crampons and an ice axe, I tend to compare all my snow crossings to that standard which helps me keep things in perspective)
While the trail certainly was not as vertical as Mount Shasta, there were some sketchy and technical slushy parts. I was very grateful I brought poles. Personally, I’m about as graceful as a bull in a china shop. Several times my poles saved me from biffing and sliding.
For the next several hours we bunny-hopped another aide station; greeting friends and even extended family along the way as our elevation dropped.
We reached mile 26, and the Pole Haven aide-station just over halfway, around 11am. I ate another protein bar, enjoyed some electrolytes and watermelon and we made our way back the way we came. The sun was out but the temperature was still fairly cool for a Saturday in June.
Things were progressing well until about mile 41 as we made a right hand turn to gain some additional elevation in the meadow. The change in trail felt great to tired feet, but as my heart rate climbed, so did my nausea.
Slowly the miles and time ticked by as we made our way to the final aide-station, just over mile 44 back at Hope Campground. My shoulders and the balls of my feet hurt and I remembered that I had my horse lineament gel waiting for me in my drop bag. While it wouldn’t help my stomach, it would relax my aching shoulders.
The day was getting later and I knew many fast runners had already finished in under twelve hours. I wasn’t discouraged per-say, after all I’ve never run 50 miles at once in my life; I just knew I wanted to run faster than I was.
I began to worry that my body was beginning to be “done” as I contemplated puking and seeing if it brought some relief. At this point, I knew the best thing was to finish as fast as I could. As we left the last aide-station, the joy and excitement of the race was long gone, and I settled into the finishing grind.
Tripping over my own feet several times, my poles saved me from injury or disaster. I somehow missed a flag for a turn on the course and when we ended up staring at a large copper pipe in a gaping hole, it was pretty obvious we missed a turn. Thankfully our detour only cost us a half mile and a little more time.
Finally, at just over 48 miles, my poles hit the Provo River Trial pavement and even ground for the first time in 14 hours. Looking at my watch and knowing we had just over 2 miles to go, I decided I wanted to finish in under 15 hours. No longer worried about finding solid footing, I decided to run the final 2 miles as best I could.
My poles gave me momentum as every quarter mile dragged on. I was nauseous, could feel the blisters on my feet, tired and cold as the wind blew at us down the trail. Total strangers were encouraging as we slogged forward. I wondered if my family would be at the finish, hopeful they were there so I could leave as soon as we were done.
Unlike many road races, there was no arch to focus on and drive my final steps too… only my sweet family cheering as soon as they saw us coming in.
Happy to see them, they joined us for the final quarter mile and ran us both in to the finish; with a time of 14 hours 55 minutes and 28 seconds.
As I hugged Rachel, I thanked her for all her help and more importantly, her friendship. Rachel is capable of finishing several hours sooner, but she graciously agreed to pace me; making sure I didn’t get lost or stranded on the trail… which seemed like a real possibility a few hours earlier.
I’d like to say that there’s some great life lessons from running a 50-mile ultra marathon. The more I think about my experience, I’m left with two simple thoughts.
1- I can’t imagine running twice that distance… 100 miles or longer in one shot. Okay, I know this was a total new learning experience for me, but only time and more ultra running experience will tell if a longer distance is an option for me. While I felt completely physically capable of running 50 miles or more, the nutrition and fueling aspect is still a bit of a puzzle that’s gonna take some more time and experimentation for me. All things considered, the race went really well. I only puked later when I got home… and up came everything I ate from mile 26 and beyond. But I did finish! 🤪
2- I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to spend an entire Saturday running in the glorious Wasatch mountains. My soul was completely filled as I witnessed countless examples of beauty, encouragement, charity, camaraderie, laughter, grit and endurance.
People of all ages, shapes and sizes from all walks of life were on the course all seeking a common goal, to finish a 50-mile ultra-marathon. It was such an inspiring sight. I drew strength from their courage and fortitude, it was truly remarkable.
It turns out that June 8, 2019 was exactly 6 years to the day when I ran my very first marathon, Utah Valley in 2013.
Ironically, I was running down the same canyon, just on a slightly different path. That was such an adventure then… the thought of doing another marathon when I finished in 2013 was not even on my radar.
Long distance running has changed me and help me become a better person. I am more mindful of others and my individual footprint I leave in this great big world. Will I run another 50-mile ultra? Absolutely, I’m just getting started. 😁