Thirty of us line up at the start of the SRT 30 mile run/hike. We are split into two waves. The first wave is released at 9am. 12 participants take off, making their way up the hill 50 feet ahead of us. There is a bit of commotion amongst the volunteers. “Hey wait, you’re all going the wrong way! It’s that way!”. All runners come back down the hill, and off to the right into the woods.
This was a perfect introduction for what was to be for the next 30 miles.
At 9:02 the second wave is released, including me. We have a distinct advantage, knowing which way to go. We work our way up a long hill. A large Slovakian dude is first up the hill, cruising ahead of everyone. Eventually another runner and I overtake the Slovakian and the runners in both waves. I’m lucky to have someone with me who knows the trail, he directs me for a few turns, a right off the main road followed by a quick left. We are running along the most incredible trail I have been on in a long time through endless fields of low huckleberry bushes with the early morning hot sun directly on us. The trail has a distinct feel to it, like a strange run through a forested desert, impressive rock outcroppings nearby, and views of long, cliffy ridges poking through the clouds in the distance.
The winner from two years ago who is also the course record holder is catching up to the two of us, just as I start increasing my pace a little. Now I am running solo. At the six-mile mark, I know there is a confusing turn to make. B&T had run the 50-miler last year, and they added an extra 1/2-mile to their journey at this point. So at 6 miles I pay very careful attention. I come out onto a gravel road, and continue in the path of least resistance, but quickly recognize that I don’t see any trail markers. I stop, look around, and find the right way to go. I victoriously raise my arms, giving myself a huge pat on the back for staying on course. The trail suddenly becomes perfectly runnable. I start cruising at a very fast pace, loving life, loving how easy the trail is. I come to an intersection and quickly notice that neither option is marked. Nor is the trail I’m on. I run up and down each trail a few times just to be sure, and eventually pull out my cell phone which has a map of the trail. Turns out I am *way* off the trail. I turn back, but have a ways to go before I get back on the SR Trial. At the time I didn’t know the distance, but my detour had taken me an extra mile. I pass a few runners. I see three runners ahead of me on a carriage road, one lagging behind a little. As I approach the closest runner, he stops and yells to the other two, “the trail is this way”. I follow his pointing finger, and in a fraction of a second have gotten in front of all of them.
I meet a man who is running the 70-miler in Vibram Five Fingers. He says he had a bit of a rough night, getting unexpectedly dehydrated in the unusual nighttime heat, leading to some stomach issues, but he is feeling better now.
During a steep climb, I meet up with Sev and another runner. On the final approach to the top, the third runner says he’s going to wait for his friend, and the two of us scurry forward. We help each other navigate this tricky section of trail. We find ourselves in a thick huckleberry maze. I think the section would be easy to hike, but the trail is full of mirage trails (presumably created by huckleberry pickers). While trying to run as quickly as we can, it seems that at every opportunity we hit a dead end and have to turn around before finding the right trail. This constant stop-and-go is slowly whittling away at my fortitude.
Up ahead on the trail I see B in his sandals. We talk for a bit. He describes his worst moment of the race, when he managed to get turned around and reverse his direction! His watch is smart enough to know better and starts politely informing him that he is turned around. “Stupid watch” he says. That is, until he finally turns around, realizes he has been here before, and curses himself for ignoring the warnings. “My new mantra became ‘trust the watch'” says B.
After 13 miles or so, I reach the first checkpoint. I ask, “how far ahead are the guys in front?”. He says, “11:18”, which I take to mean that they are 11 minutes ahead. Ouch! I spend the next few minutes trying to fathom how they got that far ahead. During this time, my resolve to catch them comes into question. I am having such a hard time staying on the trail. I can’t find any rhythm or momentum, it’s just constant slaps in the face “wrong way” “wrong way” “wrong way”. I think about what the checkpoint told me. “11:18”. What time is it now? I switch my watch into clock mode, it’s 11:26. He must have meant they came through at 11:18. Probably 2 minutes have gone by since they told me that time, so I realize that they are only 5 or 6 minutes ahead, which does not sound bad at all, but some of the mental damage has already been done.
I take off at a frantic pace. In my head, I realize that if I run at a 30-second pace faster than them, it will take me an incredibly long 10 miles to catch up. I try to make up for it by running harder. I get tired, sore, frustrated, miserable, and ultimately my soul is crushed.
I had set a goal, and was feeling the unpleasant side of putting pressure on myself. It felt so good to let go of the pressure, to let go of the goal. It is *so* nice out here. The day is perfect, the trail is amazing. How could I possibly spend the rest of the day suffering? For what? I love it out here. Or at least, I could if I just stop running. I decide that I’m going to walk the next 15 miles and enjoy it.
I hear running water in the distance. There is a bridge over an ice cold creek. I drop my pack, take off my shirt, and submerge my entire self in the waist-deep water. Taking my time, I gather my things. A man is down-stream a bit, putting clothes on and smoking a cigarette. In my new frame of mind, of abandoning all previous ambitions, I am tempted to bum one from the guy. But I am good, the downward spiral doesn’t take me that far down. I continue to walk leisurely along the trail, sore as hell but very happy. With 15 miles left to go, I have no intentions of running another step today.
Frankly I am shocked by how much time passes before any other runners catch up. But finally three runners pass me. I tell them all that I quit, I’m done running for the day. Sev, then another runner, and finally the Slovakian wearing cotton camo cargo shorts. “Don’t vorry, you’ll pass me again” he says as he runs past. Nobody is free from trouble at this point, including leg cramps, dehydration, etc.
Less than four miles separate the first and second checkpoints, but it takes an hour and 20 minutes to reach the second one, about twice as long as it should have had I been running at a reasonable pace. Just after the second checkpoint is a parking lot with an attendant. He has a giant 5-gallon jug of spring water for people to use. I know that I am going through more water than I had planned to, and I don’t have any purification pills so this is a big relief. I ask him, “do you mind if I take a little bit of water?” He says, “I don’t mind, but just so you know, I was told that it’s a self-supported race so if racers take any water they could be disqualified. But I won’t tell anyone.” Son of a… I was just going to support myself with a little bit of free public water. But I guess my choices are: risk disqualification, get dehydrated, or risk getting giardia. Hmmmm. I definitely lean towards option two, carefully provisioning what little water I have. I can deal with that.
A little further along, at a place called split rock at mile 19 there is another great place to take a swim. Again I drop my pack and take a pleasure stroll chest-deep in ice water through this magnificent natural feature.
Back on the trail, another runner passes by. A sudden compulsion makes me fall in behind him. I am running again! I talk the poor guy’s ear off. I am so happy to be out of my negativity-filled head, and just sort of hanging out and covering some ground. His name is Tom, he ran the 70 miler last year, and is running a 100 miler in a few weeks.
Tom and I ask a seated 70 miler (a previous winner), “how’s it going?”. “Not good”, he responds as he gulps down a shot of 5-hour energy drink. Tom says encouragingly, “only six-and-half miles to go!” but after 63.5 miles, somehow I don’t think this had the intended effect.
After running together for 8 miles or so, we climb a long steady hill past the final checkpoint. They, too have a jug of water and offer us some. “I heard we could get disqualified because it’s a self-supported race!”. “Who told you that? We won’t tell anyone!”. But I have already resolved to decline. Tom, also declines. He tried to refill his water at one of the swimming creeks using a filter, but found it nearly impossible, so he is now risking giardia and drinking unfiltered creek water. He says he got away with it last year, so expects it to be fine.
He says, “go on ahead if you feel like it”. I am feeling pretty good at this point, so I do.
This area is fairly populated. And for some reason everyone on the trail seems to be familiar with the SRT race today, including the course itself. I can’t tell you how many times I would start following a trail and hear a random voice in the far off distance yelling, “that’s not the right way, it’s that way”. On one such occurrence, it’s from a woman with her family. She is just hiking today but completed the 30 miler last year. I stop and walk with them as she describes where I need to go next, and we talk for a bit about the race. Her husband ran Manitou’s Revenge this year. She points me toward my next turn, and I run ahead down a steep hill. I quickly come upon a sheer rock wall. I recall B&T mentioning having to climb a wall like this during their race last year, so I assume this is the right way and take a deep breath in preparation for climbing this beast.
“That’s not the right way, you have to go to the left!” comes a voice from above. Fortunately the woman from earlier saw me miss the turn and corrected my course once again.
I run up and over the hill, which is followed by a fair amount of downhill. I come across a couple with a small child. As I run past they ask, “do you know where the yellow trail is?”. “I’m sorry I have no idea”. After heading down the trail a little bit, I stop, turn around, pull out my phone and show them the map that I have. I don’t think it helped them much, but at least I tried. And while I have the map out, I make sure I am still on course, and assess the remainder of the run. I have about 4 miles left, and the last half mile or so is along a flattish rail trail.
I catch up to the Slovakian, just as he predicted. We trade a few words before I continue on. Pink markings indicate a mandatory right turn. I take it, check the map, and confirm my location and that it’s the correct way to go. Everything is adding up nicely. I come across a couple sitting on rocks who are running (to use the term loosely) the half marathon. They say to me, “this isn’t the right way, is it?” I tell them “I am confident that it is the right way.” As I continue on, I hear repeated echoes of “that man is confident this is the right way” as word spreads to other lost runners.
Tom catches up and is disappointed to see me. He says, “I had it in my head that you took off and were finished with the race by now!”.
I come upon someone running the 70 miler. “Less than two miles to go!” I tell him. He immediately perks up. He tells me after the end of the race how much I helped him, that hearing that there were only two miles left really got him moving again.
In the last mile or so, the course becomes a little less steep and I can finally comfortably get into a fast pace. Too fast! Once I hit the flat bike path I take off running at nearly a full sprint. I am relieved to run on flat stuff like I have been training on so much this year! I fly over the giant bridge and to the finish line which is right before the trail crosses a busy road. Someone actually grabs hold of me to make sure I don’t fly into the middle of the road.
Upon arriving at the finishers tent, I find T laying down smiling next to his Tomahawk, the prize for 1st place. It turns out he ran the 70 miler and crushed the old course record by almost 4 hours with a time around 18 hours! Sev and many others are there as well, and it’s not long before Ivan (the guy I’ve been calling the Slovakian), Tom, and B join the group of finishers for pizza, beer, Coca-Cola, water, grapes, mini cupcakes… and awesome stories from the last 24 hours.