The Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run
Just a little more time is all we’re askin’ for
‘Cause just a little more time could open closin’ doors.
Just a little uncertainty can bring you down.
And nobody wants to know you now
and nobody wants to show you how.
So if you’re lost and on your own
you can never surrender!
And if your path won’t lead you home
you can never surrender!
And when the night is cold and dark
you can see
you can see light.
‘Cause no one can take away your right to fight
and to never surrender!
Corey Hart, Never Surrender
I’ve listened to my iPod dozens and dozens of times over the last year, but that song has never come up before. It came on at about 3:00 in the morning as I was pushing through mile 70. Alone, tired, and with a rapidly swelling leg/ankle. Grinding up climb after climb. This song gave me a much needed boost – I hit ‘repeat’ several times…
It had been a long week. I traveled home Monday after working all weekend in Chicago, unpacked and packed again, then drove to Utah on Wednesday. I stayed at my parent’s house that night, then spent Thursday morning packing my drop bags for the race. That was stressful. Trying to judge what the weather would be like, what I would feel like eating, how my feet would hold up, etc. I ended up way overpacked, but would rather have that than come up short. Especially since I would be tackling the race solo, without pacers or crew (excepting my dad who was with me at the start and finish). There wasn’t much room for error, and never having done a 100 miler before made it tough. Luckily there are a lot of great runners that take the time to write reports about their races and I was able to glean a lot of information from them.
The Bear 100 began in 1999 when Leland Barker figured he should start up a race of his own after the Wasatch 100 got so popular that it requires making it through a lottery process in order to gain entry. This would be the 9th running of the race, which typically hosts a fairly small number of runners. I had originally chosen an October race in Kansas for my first 100 miler, because it was 100% dirt road and seemed like an ‘easy’ one to do. That changed in early summer after I read other people’s reports about running The Bear, and heard about the awesome scenery and fall colors. Even though the course would be much more difficult, especially for a first-timer running solo, I looked forward to the challenge.
They filmed a documentary of the race in 2004. Click the picture to watch the trailer.
Dad generously offered to make the trip up to Idaho with me, and we drove up to the Logan area on Thursday afternoon to attend the pre-race meeting at Leland Barker’s farm. I also checked in, got my race number, and stashed my drop bags in the piles according to the aid station I wanted them to end up at. Because of the way the course was configured, we would hit 3 out of the 15 aid stations twice, and I concentrated on having my bags at those. The meeting was brief, but there were a lot of nervous chuckles when Leland described some of the conditions we would encounter. A controlled burn was taking place on the first section of the course and would hopefully be out by morning, there was a logging operation going on that used ribbons similar to the ones used for our race, a snowstorm was fast approaching, and to top it off there would be a cattle drive going on near the finish on Saturday morning. We’d be rockin’ the hills Idaho-style.
We checked in to the motel in Preston, and I had a cheeseburger, fries, and Oreo shake for my pre-race dinner. I tried going to bed at 8:00 because I was feeling pretty tired. I got a lot of rest, but not a lot of actual sleep. I was awake and got up before any of the alarms went off at 4:15.
My nerves were lit up as I went into race mode and made last minute preparations. I couldn’t fathom being on the go until the next day, but here I was. We killed some time in the lodge at the start talking to other runners and then headed out to the line. With a ‘get out of here!’ as the signal, 84 of us took off into the darkness. We had just under a mile of easy running up a gravel road with cattle mooing and crashing through the brush around us before we hit the trail and started climbing up the mountainside. I hung in the middle of the pack, glad that I had skipped the long sleeves – I was plenty warm.
After about a minute of climbing, my calf muscles started to cramp up big-time. Geez, only 99 miles to go and I’m already cramping up! Not a good sign. I popped some electrolyte pills and drank from my water bottle. I tried to relax as much as possible, and eventually they loosened up.
Next we hit the burn area. It was pretty surreal to be running through ash in the dark with burning logs in places on both sides of the trail. Luckily, it had died down quite a bit and it didn’t take long for us to get through. I kept tripping because the lady in front of me was using a flashlight and every time her arm would swing back it would blind me because I was below her.
Dawn came before too long and revealed hillsides covered in dark green pine trees, and red leafed maples. It was a beautiful sunrise, the first of two I would be seeing on this adventure. We hit some nice runnable sections where the trail traversed across the hills and I opened the throttle up a little to see how it felt. It was good until about mile 6 or 7 when I felt a burning sensation on the bottom of my foot and a squishy feeling when I would dig in going up a hill. First leg cramps, now a blister?!? I was definitely not happy about that. Even though it was a hard choice, I made the smart decision to take care of it right then. So there I am at mile 6, sitting on a rock off the side of the trail, both shoes and socks off, and runner after runner going by. Hi, I’m Chris the new guy that gets blisters and cramps in the first hour of a 100 mile run. Nice to meet you. I kept my cool (mostly) and got rid of the duct tape I had used to supposedly prevent blisters. I’ve had good luck with duct tape before, but this stuff was from a new roll and didn’t stick very well at all. It was wrinkling and causing my blister.
Typical trail conditions
Photo credits: Chuck Wilson and Olga Varlamova
I got everything taken care of and then made it to the first aid station at mile 11. Filled both bottles and grabbed some cookies to munch on as I headed up Maple Canyon. This was an interesting part of the run as we ran sans trail in places and hopped rocks going up a stream. My legs were a little shakier than I would have liked as I crossed a wobbly 8 inch wide log over a pool in the stream, but I kept it under control and made it just fine. I heard later that some people ahead of me had to wait for a couple of moose to get out of the way.
Google Earth view of the first big climb
I was passing a lot of people in this section, probably going a little too hard making up time from my blister stop. I hooked up with Chad who was going at a tough but good pace and we made quick progress onto the biggest climb of the day. He mentioned that a guy we just passed was doing his 8th hundred mile race of this year. That’s when danger bells started going off in my brain – what in the world am I doing passing that guy!?! But… I was feeling pretty good for a change and worked it hard for about an hour, passing many runners who were having difficulty (or some that were just being a LOT more sensible than I was). I topped out and had an easy downhill run to the 2nd aid station where I arrived at 10:46.
More fluid and cookies, and I was on my way. It was a short jaunt to the next aid station at Danish Pass, but I didn’t make very good time. I was still recovering from the climb, and was starting to get a little dehydrated as the day warmed up. So far the weather was holding, blue skies and wind out of the south.
Danish Pass aid station (mile 22 and 41)
Photo credit: Olga Varlamova
The next 20+ miles worked me over pretty good. I kept trying to make my goal times to the aid stations and was always coming in 5-10 minutes later. Despite making a strong effort. I hit a low point that lasted for about 4 hours as my body was taking it’s sweet time to get going. I kept eating and drinking, and moving forward. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it sure seemed like it would. During this time I kept reflecting on something my buddy Tim had told me before the race, dance with the girl that brung ya. Meaning, just accept what your body can do, be patient, and don’t force it. Gotta admit, that girl was getting pretty ugly.
On the approach to the 40 mile aid station, I abandoned all time goals and shifted into the mode of just getting to the finish. I backed the effort level way down and just walked easily for the remaining mile and a half to the aid station even though it was on a nice runnable dirt road. I didn’t let people passing bother me, and just concentrated on resting while moving forward. I took a longer 16 minute stop once I got to the aid station and downed 2 cups of warm tomato soup, crackers, and fruit. I also changed socks and wiped down my feet a bit. Thankfully, my earlier blister hadn’t gotten any worse and wasn’t causing me any more trouble.
Once I got moving again, I started to feel really good. By far the best I’d felt all day. Soon I caught up to some runners on a steep hill and they offered to let me go by. I started to and then caught myself. I said, “You two look like you know what you’re doing, and I definitely do not know what I’m doing. If you don’t mind, I’ll hang out back here for a while.” It turned out to be one of the smartest things I’d ever done in a race. Beth and Mike were indeed very experienced ultrarunners, extremely nice trail companions, and I would end up running with or near them for the next 40 miles. I tried to be a sponge and let their experience rub off on me – I ran when they would run, walked when they walked, ate when they ate. Granted, you can’t just blindly do everything another person does, but I was trying to tune into the rhythm and pace that they had going, and let go of my tendency to ignore things and run too fast. It was a HUGE help to me and they were very gracious in allowing me to tag along with them.
The next section of the race was some of the best running I’ve done anywhere. I felt good, I had great company, and the scenery was amazing as we ran up and down along a ridge above treeline and had views of all the canyons and colorful leaves below, and could see Bear Lake far off in the distance. It was about an hour before sunset and I was loving every second. We had a steep descent into the Bloomington Canyon aid station, and Mike really let it fly with me right on his heels. We were carving corners and bombing the downhill. I was so close behind Mike that I felt like I was racing NASCAR, what a blast!
I hurried out of the aid station and took off for the ridge while they lingered a few more minutes. I knew I wanted to make a longer stop at the next one so I could change into my nighttime gear and chow down some more substantial food. I left 2 minutes before they did, and got to the next stop 14 minutes ahead. I was still feeling good and really hauled butt along here, even running many uphills. I didn’t quite make it to Paris Canyon before dark, which is what I was shooting for, and had to use my small backup light to get me there which slowed me down quite a bit in the last mile.
Can you spot the course marker?
Photo credit: Olga Varlamova
Warm clothes were donned, food consumed, and I was ready to move again. Being past the halfway mark at 53 miles was a nice thing to think about as well. I had planned to switch to my hydration pack at this point (I had been running with one handheld bottle and one in a waist pack), but when I filled up the bladder with water it started leaking everywhere. Someone said to put duct tape on it (is there anything these people won’t do with duct tape?) which of course did no good whatsoever. I didn’t want to waste the water so I poured it into my bottles, then I carried one and put one in the compartment of the pack where the bladder would have gone. I wanted to use the backpack at night because it would allow me to carry more clothing and supplies – tights, gloves, hat, spare batteries, etc. So, it took me an extra 10 minutes, but at least I was still able to make use of the pack and I was finally on my way.I caught back up to Beth and Mike after a bit, and MAN did they have some bright lights!! That was awesome! I used to think my headlamp was pretty bright (3Watt LED), but their handhelds made me feel like I was running with a bic lighter. It was like they had taken a spotlight off of a deep sea submersible and packaged it in a small flashlight. It was great to follow them and there were a lot of nice runnable sections with ups and downs as we ran the 7 miles over to Dry Basin. We would see this section again coming back in the morning after doing a 26 mile loop on the far end of the course.
Speaking of coming back, as we’re heading down a long hill we spot a headlamp coming the other way towards us. None other than the WasatchSpeedGoat himself, Karl Meltzer. No pacer, next runner more than an hour behind, tunes cranked, on his way to setting a new course record of 18:50. Lowering the mark by an hour, and chalking up his 4th 100 mile win of this year to go on top of the 6 he bagged last year! I’ll tell you what, having a front row seat to those 4 or 5 strides he took as he went past us was truly awesome. He was simply cruising, I can’t put it any other way. I’ll remember that for a long time, definitely a highlight for me.
Leland the Race Director came trucking by a while later. He has a SUPER laid back personality, but is a very fast runner. He had taken off an hour before the official start so he could mark parts of the course as he ran, stopping to tie ribbons on branches for us – and he still manages a second place! And the day before his 50th birthday – awesome!
We pulled into the Dry Basin aid station (mile 61) at 10:54pm. I sat down for a minute and drank some soup from a styrofoam cup. It went down so good, I asked the kid who gave it to me to hit me again. Just after he gave me my second cup a guy came staggering in and asked for soup with a tone of voice that sounded like it had been the only thing on his mind for the past two years. The kid’s reply – sorry man, we’re all out. Oooops! I felt bad, but not bad enough to stop drinking mine…
One more small pass to climb as we made our way beyond this stop, then a long gradual downhill. This is where it really paid to be in a small group. Sometimes we’d come to an open meadow and could just make out a faint glow stick hanging in the tree on the opposite end. There were a few places where the trail wasn’t totally obvious, and the ribbons were a little sparse. We were able to fan out a bit and usually find the next one without too much trouble. Especially thanks to eagle-eye Beth. I’d probably still be stumbling around out there if I was on my own.
Somewhere in this stretch, probably around mile 65, I stepped on the side of a rock and felt my ankle roll. There was some immediate pain, but then it lessened, and I congratulated myself for saving it from going all the way. Little did I know that instant would have a drastic effect on my finish the next day.
We picked up Craig from San Francisco, and Piero from Italy as we made our way to the Mill Creek station at mile 68. This stop was the best one of the night. They had chairs lined up for us, with a rug along the front so we didn’t have to set our stuff in the dirt. Then we were handed warm moist towels to wipe off with. First class! It felt so good to scrub the dirt and salt off with a warm towel, then feel the cooling effect as the moisture evaporated. They treated us to dutch oven chicken soup, rice, and a can of coke. I thought I was going to learn some new Italian cuss-words when Piero spilled hot soup on his leg, but all that came out was oooh! and aaaaaahhh! He did say grazie when I helped him wipe it up. I stayed for 13 minutes before reluctantly heading out again.
I’m not really sure why, but I ended up alone on the next section, out ahead of the group I was with. In reality, it was just by a few minutes, but it seemed like miles. This was a very remote part of the course, and it was smack in the middle of the night. Soon I got to the dreaded ‘roller coaster’ section, which climbed and dropped steeply over and over, higher and higher. I don’t even remember much about this part, other than putting my ipod on and just moving through it as fast as I could. Near the top, I really started to feel sluggish, as if my feet were sticking in tar. I was very glad to see the next aid station at mile 74.
I quickly refueled and set off at 4:17am with a burst of new energy and resolve. Doing some quick math in my fuzzy brain (ok, I counted on my fingers), I realized I had 7 1/2 hours to cover roughly a marathon distance to meet my original 30 hour goal. Piece of cake! We had several miles of climbing on a gravel road to cover, and I passed a lot of people with my renewed vigor and determination. I caught up to Bill from Montana and we shared a few stories. He had run in this event 6 or 7 years ago and was moving strong. We kept it up for a while, then we both started to fade a little. Taking turns standing bent over with our hands on our knees and closing our eyes for a few seconds. I lagged a bit and he pushed on ahead to get to the 79 mile aid station about 3 minutes ahead of me.
In looking at the split times, I’m very surprised to see that I stayed at the Copenhagen Basin aid station for 18 minutes. I don’t even recall what I was doing there for so long. Beth, Mike, and Piero all came in and we left more or less as a group. It was nice to have company again. I needed to show Peiro how to farmer-blow, he was far too occupied in wiping his nose with a neatly folded tissue. My headlamp started going dim just as first light appeared, and went out without a second to spare. Good timing.
Now it was snowing, muddy, fogged in, and cold. I just wanted to get this section over with so I could stop at Dry Basin and put my tights on and get something warm to eat. I was starting to have a hard time running, but just chalked it up to fatigue.
I left Dry Basin, which was anything BUT dry, and realized I had forgotten a water bottle. I was only about 1/4 of a mile from the aid station. Doesn’t sound like much, but I really had to talk myself into going back for it, which I did. My ankle that I rolled earlier in the night really started slowing me down, and eventually made it impossible for me to run anymore. Anything causing my toes to point up or down really hurt. Going uphill was especially bad, and downhill was no picnic either.
I made agonizingly slow progress over the last 15 miles. It would take me 7 hours to cover that distance, walking and hurting every step of the way. I had plenty of time in the bank from the previous night, and didn’t have to worry too much about making the 5pm cutoff. I just kept going, knowing that eventually I would make it. Things got a little bit grim as I made my way through ‘Leland’s Ledge’, a 1.5 mile deer trail/bushwhack traverse that required a few rock climbing scramble moves to negotiate some outcroppings. That was pretty tough in the snow and mud, not to mention having 93 miles in my legs at that point!
Eventually the traverse ended up on a dirt road and it was all downhill from there. I can’t express the frustration I had at not being able to run it in. Instead, I was getting very cold and barely moving. After not seeing anyone come by me all morning, I would be passed by several runners and their pacers in the last 2 miles. I was bummed about that, this was a race after all, but then I realized that I was just about to finish my first 100 miler and that made me deeply satisfied and content. To think of how far I’ve come this year was just amazing, and know that I’m building up a base of fitness and experience that will lead to much better finishes down the road was great. I was truly happy for my fellow runners as well, they all had worked so hard to make it to the end.
Dad was there snapping photos of the runners coming to the line. I couldn’t even muster a run for the camera, the leg would have none of it. All the same, it was a finish – and I’ll take it! 32 hours and 48 minutes. 52nd place out of 62 finishers (84 starters).
I feel extremely happy with what I’ve accomplished, and grateful to my family and friends for all of the support and encouragement they’ve given me while I chased this crazy dream. I could not have done it without them. Just knowing they cared about me, and were keeping track of my progress on the race website really kept me going.
What’s next?? Rest and healing, for sure. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I can’t wait to build on the things I’ve learned, and try for a faster finish. I definitely felt very strong and fit, but at the same time I felt very ‘green’. I only had 1,500 total miles in my legs before this event, and that was no match for the years and tens of thousands of miles the other runners had in theirs. That’s ok, I’ll take my time catching up. My confidence got a huge boost from being able to finish this race, and especially on an injured leg. It gives me great optimism to see what I’m capable of in the future.
Once the foot heals, that is…
Dad’s photos are here.