Race Report: Antelope Island Buffalo Run 100
That is the one word description I would use for my trip to run the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 100 miler. I wasn’t ready for this race. Deep down inside I knew it, but showed up and went through the motions. After 82 miles of that I swung off the trail and walked cross-country to the nearby road, and started heading in the opposite direction with my thumb out. Steve was kind enough to pick me up a minute later and take me to the finish area where I turned in my race number and called it a day.
I decided to use the word chewy because despite the failure to finish, I had a good time and did a lot of thinking and reflecting. Something I was badly in need of, since my life over the past several months often resembled a blender running at high speed with the lid left off. With this trip, I had time to chew on things for a while and it did me a lot of good.
This winter was probably my worst ever in terms of training. Stress has been very high, quality sleep has been very low. My normal drop in weight once I ramped up the miles never happened. Despite cleaning up my diet and doing away with soda and most of the other junk I had been taking in. Looking back, it seems almost like my body was in some sort of defensive mode. Refusing to change, refusing to get lighter, and refusing to get faster. The normal roar of the furnace was replaced with a flickering pilot light in a strong breeze.
My calves caused me endless difficulty. Ever since I pushed through some tightness during what I would call a successful disaster of a race back in October, they have been far above and beyond their normal level of grumpiness. Getting so tight as to cut off the circulation and causing my feet to go numb whenever I would try and run uphill. I lost track of how many times I would have to stop and walk, or turn back early because of that.
I had an incredible time at this race last year. An almost transcendent experience during the last few miles topped off with a large number of my family waiting to see me finish on a beautiful spring day. I knew this year would be much different, and was in a pretty deep melancholy rut going into it. I felt guilty about taking the time off and spending the money traveling to a race I wasn’t even ready for. I was happy my parents were coming up to see me finish, but worried about them sitting around in the freezing cold all day.
I was in a pretty foul mood leading up to the race and needed a big-time attitude adjustment. I spent some time on the drive from Colorado taking a few photos to break things up a little.
After getting into town on Thursday I took some time to go out to the causeway that leads to the island and see if I could spot anything to photograph. My cares melted away as I spent time watching a couple of hawks soar and dive in the strong wind. One of them took off a short distance from me and since the wind was blowing so hard it hung basically motionless in the air about 20 feet away with an incredibly intense look in its eyes.
That got some better mojo flowing and despite wanting to ditch the run and just spend the weekend taking pictures, I knew I was going to line up and give it the best shot I could.
It was great to see so many friends and acquaintances before the race. I knew many of them had trained through more difficult circumstances than I had, and was motivated by their commitment and focus. I felt somewhat imposter-ish, though, with my plan of trying to take it easy and just finish because I hadn’t trained well enough. This is a 100 mile race for hell sakes.
Imagine my surprise when after the first couple of miles I was feeling prettydamnfantastic. It was very cold at times, with the wind blowing off the water, but I felt at ease and rolled along jamming to the tunes pounding my skull. I was stopping to take pictures, walking inclines that I had run the year prior, and generally trying to be super conservative. I still finished the first 19 mile loop only 15 minutes slower than I did last time (when pushing myself fairly hard), and should have taken that as a huge sign to slow down even more. Instead, my ego got the best of me – rationalizing that if I had been taking it this easy and was only 15 minutes off last year’s pace at this point, things must not be as bad as I thought.
A couple of issues were dogging me, though. First and foremost was my lungs – it was kind of alarming, actually. At mile 6 out of the blue I felt a familiar but dreadful sensation that I have only experienced at Leadville (for the past 3 years). It’s a weird combination of heaviness and tightness in my chest and lungs that always seems to hit me climbing up the back side of Hope Pass and has shut me down pretty hard. It feels like laying on your back with about 30 pounds of weight on your chest. I don’t cough, wheeze, gurgle, or rattle. My airway doesn’t feel constricted. I manage if I keep the effort easy, but when I try to ramp it up I get short of breath very quickly. I have always chalked it up to the extreme altitude and hard breathing all day at Leadville, but here I was barely an hour into this race and already feeling it. Even the morning after the race I could climb the 3 flights of hotel stairs just fine leg-wise, but could hardly catch my breath at the top. I have some ideas that it might be sodium or electrolyte related, but need to do more research.
That put a serious damper on things, but didn’t bother me a great deal as long as I kept things moderate, which I was trying to do anyway. My stomach was off very soon, too – not agreeing with my nutrition plan right from the start. And my heels. Holy crap were they ticked off. A side-effect of my overly tight calves is that they yank on the achilles insertion point at the back of my heels. Causing that spot to burn with a white-hot intense flash of pain with every single step. What’s the big deal? Only 90 more miles to go…
Man, I long for the day when I can just ‘run’. Running seems to be about number 5 or 6 on this list during these things lately. It has all turned into some sort of issue management exercise. I couldn’t care less about my finishing time, all I want is to come close to what my potential limits are. And I have failed to do that. So. Many. Times.
By mile 25 I was a mental and physical wreck. In a low point so deep there was absolutely no hope left. No way out, up, or forward. But I kept moving. Knowing that even if the issues didn’t resolve, at least the feeling would pass. It took another 15 miles, but I finally started to crawl out of the hole and feel like I could see this thing through. We had been battered by wind, cold, and sideways snow throughout the afternoon. Now the sun was out and things seemed to improve. It was almost like being in the eye of a hurricane as all around us the wall of clouds obscured our vision. It was a memorable sight to watch wave after wave of the storm slam into the mountains across the lake.
Night came and I ran for a very long time without turning on my headlamp. I had worn sunglasses all day and my night vision seemed to be holding up great. A bit of the moon was trying to show itself through the clouds. I knew it would be a very long night of staring into a spot of light on the ground and wanted to put that off for as long as possible. Plus, the added concentration it demanded was a great mental distraction for a while.
I finished the first 50 mile lap in 10:15. Kind of surprised I was that close to 10 hours with all the problems I had been dealing with. Again, it probably did me more harm than good as I had thoughts of shooting for a time I wasn’t prepared for. I should have backed off some more. I guess I am okay with suffering, but always want to suffer as fast as possible.
I dressed on the lighter side for the next 20 mile section as I knew I would be working a bit on some climbs. It worked out great for a while, especially on parts of the course that were sheltered from the wind. It backfired on me when I got chilled on a long descent due to the wind kicking up and being a little sweaty from the effort on the climbs. My legs were starting to protest and I wasn’t moving well enough to generate much in the way of heat. I think the temp was in the low 20s, but the wind chill felt much colder at times.
I took a longer stop at the start/finish aid station and changed out of most layers. In situations like this it is always a tough decision whether to keep moving and maintain what heat you are generating vs. stopping and getting the benefit of new warm layers but having to start from scratch to get warm again.
I left the aid station and almost turned around to drop out of the race after 5 minutes. I was beyond cold, my core was a block of ice. I wasn’t even shivering which I knew was a bad sign. The next aid station was only a few miles away so I decided to at least try to make it that far. I did, and kept going.
The next section was really rough for me. My condition hadn’t improved much and my legs were now completely shot. I was stuck in the worst case scenario I had feared. Cold, and unable to move well enough to produce any heat whatsoever. The same situation I had been in at the time of my only previous DNF at Leadville in 2008. I had dropped then at mile 77 in similar circumstances.
I knew walking wasn’t going to cut it. I had to run, that was the only way to get warm. I tried at least 3 dozen attempts ranging from 10 steps to a couple of minutes. Hoping to get things rolling again, I vaguely remember making this dying-animal moaning sound all alone on the trail with no one in sight. It was awful.
Why is it that every time I do one of these it seems like it is harder than all the rest combined?? You would think (or at least I would) that my 10th one would start to show some level of mastery or competence. Instead, I was the in the all too familiar situation of being 25 miles from the finish and barely moving.
I was willing the sun to rise with every fiber of my being. It was sleeping in that day, though – thanks to a huge bank of clouds piled high up against the mountains. Even though daylight was approaching, there would be no rays of sunshine for a long while yet.
I shut off my headlamp as I approached the Lower Frary aid station. Relieved to have at least made it through the dark of night, and ready to drop from the race. It seemed to take me forever to get there with my pathetic little six inch steps.
I cursed under my breath as none other than Roch Horton approached upon my arrival. Roch is an amazing guy, one I have long looked up to in this sport with his Hardrock and Wasatch exploits. His aid station service is known across the universe as the best in the business. When he greeted me by name and informed me that he would need 20 minutes of my time, I knew I was in for the royal treatment. I wanted badly to stop him, tell him not to waste his time. Instead, I chose to accept it and reciprocate him giving me his best shot with me giving it mine.
He got me situated on a chair in a tent with a propane heater about 12 inches in front of me and a thick blanket on my back. Then brought me cup after cup of warm broth, a perogie, and a hot water bottle to stuff down my jacket. Topping it all off with a sip from his personal mug, he sent me on my way 20 minutes later shaking my head at how much better I felt. It was a brand new day! Life was good, I was a hurting mess, but I was a moving hurting mess. Amazing.
It lasted for 3 miles, then I crashed hard again. This time it was two inch steps. I wouldn’t make it to the finish before next week at this rate. I stopped in the middle of the trail and summoned every bit of lucidity I could to carefully think over my situation. 18 miles to go. 9 hours left before the cutoff. Could I finish? Yeah, probably – maybe. Did I want to spend the entire rest of the day trying to find out? No, not really. Not with my parents sitting out in the cold without any word from me for hours on end. I pulled the plug.
It may be a cop out, but I’m pretty much at peace with the decision. I got a lot out of the journey and the experience will serve me well in the future. It doesn’t feel like some big angry or disappointing moment like before. More of a quiet catalyst, a taste of humility, and a feeling of wanting to approach this whole sport in a new, more sustainable way. I can’t think of races like this like going to battle or something like that anymore, there is some element of that you need to pump yourself up with, but I want to start getting away from that being the primary train of thought. I feel like I need to approach them with an attitude of seeing what I can learn, seeing who I can help, and seeing how well I can prepare. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m feeling it, I’m going to hit it with everything I’ve got. Just trying to learn and grow a little along the way.
I’ve sort of built a small reputation of being the guy that will finish at all cost. I didn’t really want to be that guy this time and it was a liberating sensation. Rule #1, it is just running.
I am very proud and impressed with the many folks who had great races. Several set new PR’s which is a huge accomplishment under those conditions. I watch and learn from all you guys, keep it up, you’re the best.
Speaking of which, my bro-in-law finished his first ultra. I got to see him and his son finish the 50k together. Highlight of the week for me!
Chris, Bryan, Curtis. We-Haul.
The volunteers all deserve awards. Standing around for hours on end in that bitter cold and wind must have been a huge challenge. They were top-notch as usual. Jim makes the race better every year and truly has things dialed in. What a great example of how a race should be managed. I’m grateful to him for the invitation to come out and am already looking forward to next time.
Yeah, I said it. Next time.