I’m writing this blog post a couple miles off the Little Falls trail in Arroyo Grande, CA. The initial plan was to make it up to the Condor Lookout 7 miles outside Pozo, but unfortunately we had a late start after work. With several miles to go and the sunset 30 minutes behind us, I decided to set up camp right off the trail.
Alejandra and I arrived in Salt Lake City late at night on Wednesday. After a decent night of sleep, we had all day Thursday to relax in Utah. We spent the morning with Alejandra’s family in Ogden, a smaller city approximately 40 minutes north of Salt Lake. We learned from her family, considering they were on the border, that you are either from North Ogden or South Ogden. Not sure why there was such a distinction between parts of the city, but considering they have their own festivals and names on welcome signs, I’m envisioning an epic fight between the husband and a few of his wives when starting the village a hundred or so years ago.
Since Alejandra doesn’t see her Utahian family much, I left her with her cousin for the day and headed out to Park City to catch up with Thomas and Luke, and to meet my blind date pacer. The drive out to Park City from Salt Lake takes you past the Big Mountain and Lambs Canyon aid stations, so it was good to have some bearings when later trying to give directions to Alejandra. Considering my sense of direction though, she’s much safer just following the crew caravan.
Heading into the Park City Running Company to meet the rest of the crew, I was surprised when no one was in the store except for one of the workers. Only knowing him by name, I asked the gal behind the counter “Is Kenneth here?” She looked at me a little awkward. Knowing I can have that affect on women, I asked her a different way, “Kenneth is going to be pacing me tomorrow and I’m supposed to meet him here?”
Still the same look…
Ummm… “Kenneth, the owner of the Park City Running Company.”
“Do you mean Canice?”
Now, I was confused. Thomas had told me a couple times that Kenneth would be the pacer. When we exchanged contact info, he sent me a phone number for Canice. I assumed this was Kenneth’s wife, so I guess she was now my pacer. Pretty sure the Grand Slam had extended my mushy brain syndrome well past each race, so it took me way longer than it should to realize that “Kenneth’ was “Canice.” Looking back, I blame it on Thomas’ German accent
After talking running for awhile with the guys and a quick lunch, I headed out to the prerace Wasatch meeting. Knowing that I had to drive out to Ogden afterwards, I was really hoping the RD would keep things short. Knowing that Western States, Vermont and Leadville were all an hour or longer, I expected to hit the road from SLC around 5-5:15ish. If you’re looking for a detailed prerace meeting, please don’t come to the Wasatch, because they wrapped things up in less than 30 minutes.
How all prerace meetings should be…
“We have a lot of runners with great resumes racing tomorrow. Past winners, people finishing for their 20th time… etc. We don’t really care and they won’t be talking today. The course is marked pretty well, so if you get lost it’s your fault. See you tomorrow.” Couldn’t tell from the glare, but I thought Luis Escobar was running this damn thing!
After Alejandra’s birthday dinner with the soon-to-be fam (yes, she came out to Utah to crew for me on her birthday), we made our way back to SLC for some early shuteye.
With the race start at 5:00am, I was able to “sleep in” again till 3:00ish. Thankfully, Wasatch arranged for several buses to cart runners from downtown SLC to the starting location 40 minutes north of town. Making my way onto the bus, I walked towards the rear and ran into some slam brothers… Sean, Chris and Josam. We chatted about recovery and the lack of training in between races, and that it will be really, really nice to be done with this event in hopefully 26-30ish hours. With a short hike to the starting location and after a quick stop bathroom break, the final leg of the Grand Slam was off!
The first two miles of Wasatch are ran on asphalt, as runners make their way to the single track for a monstrous climb. From reading several race reports and learning about a change in course, I decided to go out relatively quickly to secure a spot closer to the front-ish of the pack, and get in front of the conga line. Settling somewhere into 40-60th as we hit the trail, I look up to see Tommy Barlow right in front of me. Tommy, a fellow Grand Slammer and similarly new to endurance runner like me, was on his home turf after nailing a great Leadville. We chatted for a couple miles, working our way up the 4,500ft+ climb. Weirdly, both Tommy and I felt relatively recovered and decently strong, considering we had 300 recent racing miles on our legs. We both talked about feeling better heading into Wasatch then at any other time throughout the slam. Again, I think the mushy head syndrome of ultras was clouding our judgement, but feeling good is much better than feeling like a bag of soggy poo at mile 4.
Working our way up the first massive climb of the day, I started to realize that every damn person in this race was using hiking poles but me. Declining the offer from Kenneth/Canice on Thursday to use a pair, living by the mantra of not trying anything new on race day, I started to rethink this declination. This first climb was big, really F’ing big! Realizing we’d have another 23-24k of climbing after this ascent, I was seriously rethinking this don’t try anything new on race day crap…
The first aid station came a few miles after summiting climb #1, and I ran into Tommy again before quickly refilling water bottles. Being his home course and knowing he’s a solid climber, I expected we’d be battling it out all day.
The next several miles were uneventful, minus a short detour after getting lost. Assuming it’s going to happen multiple times throughout a race, it doesn’t bother me much to lose a few cumulative minutes to the trail marking gods these days.
Making our way into Sessions aid station, I ran into Jeralyn, the worker at Park City that helped correct me on Canice’s name the day before. Learning that she was one of only a couple women to nearly finish 3 loops of Barkley, and one of a very few to have finished the WURL (check Jared Campbell’s blog), again I was humbled to spend time on the trails with these studs.
The first crew/aid station is Big Mountain at mile 31. After now having multiple ultras under my belt and crewing/pacing at a few, I realize how difficult it is for friends and family to spend an entire day waiting around to see their runner for only 1-2 minutes. Alejandra, Luke and Thomas were awesome though, fighting the crowds to say hi/bye as I tried my best to waste as little time as possible moving through.
The 8 mile stretch from Big Mountain to Alexander Ridge aid station was my favorite part of the day. After a solid climb, the next several miles were gentle and runnable, with incredible views running along the ridge before dropping down into the AS at mile 40ish. I ran into Ford Smith on this section of trail. Ford is one of the “Young Guns” of ultrarunning, making a name for himself with a very impressive late 2014-15 stretch of events. We talked and ran together for 6ish miles into the AR AS. At 20 years old, this runner has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. Can’t wait to see what he does after college.
Heading out of Alexander Ridge, I had my first low point of the day. Albeit a decent climb out of the valley we’d descended into, this moderate climb towards Lambs Canyon absolutely destroyed me. Being the hottest part of the day, I chalked it up to the temp, but I was forced to hike a significant portion of this section that was entirely runnable. Upon flattening out and starting our descent into Lambs, thankfully I stopped feeling sorry for myself and opened up on the few miles into the AS at 45.
Planning to pick up Thomas at Lambs and knowing that he’s as anal as I am when it comes to race logistics, I was surprised not to see him anywhere around the aid station. After filling up my bottles, emptying trash and having a shot of coke, I planned to head out sans pacer. Fortunately, Thomas and Alejandra decided to come down to the aid station early as the runner updates weren’t posting too timely. As I was running out of the aid station, Thomas came running in nearly plowing into me. We were both excited to see each other, and moved quickly out towards Big Water Basin.
Not knowing where I was at this time in the race, really not wanting to know with 55 miles left to run and feeling relatively good, we decided to move and try to make some decent time out to Brighton at mile 67. Passing the 50 mile mark in 10:55ish and feeling strong considering the last 11 weeks of racing, the second low point of the day hit really hard, really fast.
Climbing or hiking over technical terrain is usually my only strength in ultrarunning, so when that goes, all hell tends to break loose. Well, this happened shortly after the 50 mile mark, and glad Thomas was patient as a saint as we worked to not piss away too much time before descending into Brighton. Thankfully, my quads were still intact and running downhill wasn’t too painful. With 28k of climbing expected in this race, I thought it would be a serious quad blaster, beating the tar out of the legs similar to Western States. With most descents less than a few miles however, the quads had plenty of time to “relax” between pounding sessions.
We rolled into the Brighton aid station at mile 67 somewhere around 8:20pm (15:20 of racing), and after a quick shirt change, we were off to climb up towards Ants Knoll with Canice now taking charge. With all the talk about logistics and triple checking my drop bag to include everything needed, my fucking headlamp dies in the first 10 minutes of the hike out from Brighton. Canice was a professional and had an additional head lamp replaced within seconds, but this section was another ass kicker as I slowed down dramatically. We made our way up with another runner who was running Wasatch for his first time, and was taking pointers from Canice on his intimate knowledge of the course.
Canice’s knowledge of the course was almost creepy, as he literally knew every single turn and climb from 67-91. After a long low stretch, I finally felt semi-normal for a few miles and we made some descent time to the Pot Hollow AS at mile 84. Unfortunately, my high points didn’t last long, and I retreated back to the ultra shuffle for much of these 24 miles. After what felt like an eternity, and by most accounts it was when looking at the splits, we finally made it to Thomas at mile 91 (Top of the Wall). With 9 miles to go, our plan was to start “hammering,” as supposedly the terrain was incredible runnable and the grade was perfect for opening up.
We must have a different definition of “runnable” than Utahians…
Thomas and I were literally laughing, as we had 2-3 miles of the absolute worst descent of the race, tearing through overgrown brush, dry prickly shrubs, perfectly placed rocks for rolling ankles and the steepest grade of the day. Finally, we dropped into some runnable cow pasture and were able to make up some time into the last aid station. With a pre-race goal of under 27 hours, I was ecstatic to be close to 24 hours, but considering the pace of the first 50 miles in under 11hrs, a 13hr+ last 50 miles was pretty atrocious. I can blame it on the cumulative effects of the Grand Slam, but simply I sucked pretty bad from 50-91.
The last few miles felt like dancing on clouds, as it was a wide open gravel road that we could actually run on. Well, dancing on clouds is a pretty shitty metaphor, as I literally felt like death was approaching, trying not to pass out, puke or piss myself. We dropped onto asphalt again, only the third time outside of the start and short trip into Brighton, and finished with about a mile of slight incline. Rounding the last turn, I crossed the finish line in 24:20, good enough for 20th, and the fastest Slammer of the class of 2016. A perfect finish to the Grand Slam, there was one old timer that stood up to greet me, then just as quickly sat back down. No accolades… no fireworks… shit there weren’t even any lights… just how I like it!
Asked by a few to write why I decided to compete in the Grand Slam this year, unfortunately I don’t have a great story like so many of my fellow Slammers. Shit, I didn’t even know what the Grand Slam was until Erik Dube told me about it after getting into Western States. Looking back however on these four races over 11 weeks, I’ve learned so much about myself. Resiliency…Determination…Stubbornness…Recovery…Strength, or lack thereof… and the most important, humility. I’ve been so humbled and so honored to share the trails with such an amazing group of 19 in the Grand Slam class of 2016. We all, as every finisher does in any ultra, had to battle demons, juggle variables and incessantly troubleshoot to get to each finish line.
What I learned:
I’ve been asked a few times what I’ve learned in finishing the Grand Slam, and simply it’s that I don’t know jack shit about ultrarunning. Yes I’ve finished a handful of ultras over three years and I’ve been a student of this sport since literally stumbling into it three years ago, but this sport is all about consistent improvement, and it takes time to improve. The reason why we have such a respect for those that have competed in this sport for years, possibly more respect than any veteran in any sport, is that these studs have lived through ALL the ups… ALL the downs… ALL the issues, and came out the other end still standing, still running.
Guys like Dan Brenden, although not able to complete the Grand Slam in 2016, has completed the GS 8 times! Gals like Ann Trason and Pam Reed beating the top guys in this sport for years! Even the “regular” ultrarunner juggling a job, family commitments and training, inspire me everyday to get off my ass everyday to get better.
Can’t wait for 2017, and looking forward to getting back to the grind… after a good long rest!