The way I see it, when you bite off more than you can chew, you have two options:
- You can panic, choke, and die; or
- You can spit it out, cut it up into more manageable pieces, and take down your morsel bit-by-bit.
It’s kind of a gross analogy, right? The 2nd option never looks pretty, and in fact it’s borderline disgusting, but Option #2 is the path that survivors take. You can walk away at the end of Option #2.
As I toed the starting line of the Grand Teton Races trail marathon and stared up at the mountain we were to ascend right off the bat, I had the distinct feeling that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. For whatever reason, the thought that opened this post popped into my head, though it’s something I don’t remember ever hearing before — Okay, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I can choke and die, or I can save myself by cutting this up into smaller pieces and taking it down that way. It won’t be pretty, but I’ll get through this.
You could say I was less than confident as the starter’s gun went off.
A (Quick) Background — How Did I Get Here?
The full story of how I ended up in Alta, WY to run a trail marathon at altitude would add at least another few thousand words to this entry, but the upshot is that I decided to take a random week off of work to go explore somewhere I’d never been before — I decided I’d take off the last week of August, and I went from there. I looked at a map of Canada and the United States, and then cross-referenced it against a list of upcoming marathons listed in the Marathon Maniacs database. Hmmmnnnn, a marathon in Wyoming, right by Yellowstone, and run entirely in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest? That could be interesting…
And so I planned a week of solitary wilderness activities around running in the Grand Teton Races over Labor Day weekend; after I saw a handful of friends in Denver, I was on my own for the next 4 days. In the days leading up to the marathon, I drove across the length and width of the state of Wyoming, I camped in the Grand Teton National Park, I saw Old Faithful erupt, and I watched my beloved Michigan State Spartans topple Boise State in football from a bar in Jackson Hole. I stayed in touch with friends back home via text, but I didn’t look at a single email in 5 days, and it was amazing.
A couple things of note:
- Before this trip, I had never before run at altitude, not even a short jog. Oh, and the race started at 8,000 feet above sea level.
- I was running this marathon completely by myself, which I hadn’t done for a marathon since the Air Force Marathon in September 2011
- I camped in a tent the night before the marathon, and I was woken up at 2am on race day by the sound of rain crashing down on my tent roof. No rain got in my tent (I pitch a mean tent), but I was never able to fall back asleep. I tried to fall back asleep, but my concern about a possible rainout prevented that from happening.
And so on the morning of my first trail marathon, I found myself alone, improperly acclimated to the altitude, and sleep-deprived. I smell a PR!
As soon as there was a break in the rain, I hurriedly broke camp — it was 4am, and I’d been awake and staring at the ceiling of my tent for the last 2 hours. Haphazardly throwing my dry tent and sopping-wet rainfly into the trunk of my rental car, I then made a rather harrowing hour-long drive from Jackson to Alta, where the race would start at the base of a ski hill at the Grand Targhee Resort. One way or another, this was going to be an interesting race.
After an informative pre-race information session, us 20-25 marathoners made our way to the starting line.
MILES 0–2.8: The ascent up Fred’s Mountain
As if to reiterate to all runners that this course was not for the faint of heart, the starting line was positioned at the base of a ski hill, and the first 2.8 miles of the course consisted of an ascent up Fred’s Mountain. All told, these 2.8 miles would take us from an altitude of 8,000 feet up to 9,784 feet, and this 1,784-foot elevation gain averaged out to just over a 12% upgrade. While the fastest runners loped up the mountain, I was relieved to see that most runners opted to power-walk the uphills and jog the flats.
I didn’t know anyone else coming into this race, but I quickly fell in step with two women, Mary and Roxanne, who seemed to be matching my pace pretty evenly on these uphill strides. Roxanne was a strong runner from Colorado who was running her first trail marathon, while Mary Flaws from Milwaukee turned out to be somewhat of a celebrity in the running world — she and her husband Bill own and operate the comprehensive running website runningintheusa.com. Mary was in the midst of an insane stretch where she would be running something like 4 marathons in 9 days, which was mind-boggling to contemplate. The 3 of us drifted in and out of conversation with runners from New York, Idaho, and Wyoming, but for these first few miles, Mary and Roxanne were my two main running partners.
I had been greatly concerned about the altitude coming in, but I was pleased to find that it wasn’t impacting me too much; or, if it was, it didn’t seem to be hurting me any more than anyone around me. We made it to the top of Fred’s Mountain in around 53 minutes, which is right where the ultra-fit Mary said she wanted to be, so that made me feel pretty damn confident about how I had coped with the climb. As we reached the cheerful aid station volunteers at the top of the mountain, I jokingly called out, “Are you Fred?”, to which one jovial volunteer replied “Yep, we’re Fred!”, as he handed me a cup of sports drink and some jelly beans.
Just past the summit, the peak of the Grand Teton came into view, which reminded me why I’d signed up for this race in the first place:
MILES 2.8–6.7: What goes up, must come down…
It’s easy to train for uphill climbs in Chicago, because it’s as simple as going to the gym and cranking the treadmill up to the desired incline. Much trickier, though, is training in Chicago to run downhill. If your gym does not have one of those cutting-edge treadmills that can simulate a decline, well, there is not much you can do to simulate the pounding that your quads will take over the course of a decline that stretches for several miles.
My gym in Chicago does not have a decline treadmill.
Within the first half-mile of the descent, I knew I was in trouble. This was supposed to be the easy recovery part, but I was having a real hard time keeping up with the nimble steps of Mary and Roxanne. Not wanting to commit myself to flying down the rocky terrain of this steep downgrade, my steps were instead short and choppy, and I was heel-striking like the trail-running rookie that I was. I was able to move much faster than the uphill portion, yes, but this was not nearly the “recovery” portion of the race that I was hoping for.
Still, I couldn’t deny that the scenery was beautiful. As we descended Fred’s Mountain, we had a full view of the surrounding forests and valleys. While my thighs burned, at least my eyes were rewarded:
As we finished this initial 6.7-mile loop back to the Targhee Base Area (from where we started), I was staggering noticeably, like a punch-drunk boxer who needed to find his equilibrium. This race was barely one-quarter over, and my legs were already shot.
MILES 6.7–12: Losing touch
The trail marathon course was set up in a sort of cloverleaf formation, with 3 distinct sections (creatively titled Sections A, B, & C) that passed through the start/finish Targhee Base Area at the end of each “loop.” Passing through the base area signified the end of one section, and the beginning of another. As Mary, Roxanne, and I descended upon the Targhee Base Area at the end of Section A, we stopped briefly to eat and replenish our water supplies — the aid stations were all 3-5 miles apart, so every runner carried a water bottle or some sort of hydration pack. Mary’s husband Bill (who runs runningintheusa.com along with her) was waiting for Mary, Roxanne’s kids were waiting for Roxanne, and I….well, I felt kind of lonely. I resolved to stay with Mary and Roxanne for as long as I could, but that would soon become too much to manage.
Section B would stretch from Mile 6.7 through Mile 21.2 before returning to Targhee Base, and this was the section that “typically sees the most wildlife,” according to the course description. In fact, it was this following bit from the course FAQ section that really caught my attention pre-race:
“With so many people on the trails, it is unlikely that you will encounter a bear or lion, but please be prepared if you do. We do strongly advise every competitor to carry bear spray and/or run with a bear bell while on the course.”
Bears! While running a race! Not wanting to take any risks, I purchased a can of bear spray to run with, which was about the size of an air horn and sprays out to 30 feet. I determined weeks before the race that if I wanted to run with a camera, bear spray, and my own water, I would need to run with a small runner’s backpack. In my pack, I carried the following items:
- BEAR SPRAY: I knew I probably wouldn’t need it, but I wasn’t about to get eaten by a freaking bear during a run. Better safe than sorry.
- RUNNER’S HAT: It wasn’t sunny in the morning when the race started, but I knew that I would be out on the course for a long time.
- HYDRATION RESERVOIR: To, you know, stay hydrated.
- BODY-GLIDE: No explanation needed.
- GUs & STINGER WAFFLES: To keep my energy stores up on the course between aid stations
- DIGITAL CAMERA: Because frankly, I wasn’t running for speed
Within a mile of departing Targhee Base, the arch of my right foot started barking, and I knew that I was in trouble — the plantar fasciitis that I’d developed about a month earlier had decided to rear its ugly head. My downhill footstrikes were excruciating, and I knew that I couldn’t keep pace with Mary and Roxanne anymore. I begrudgingly bade them farewell around Mile 8, and I was suddenly very much alone.
[Let’s fast-forward 3.5 miles]
As I emerged from the woods and onto a road at Mile 11.5 (thank God that the trail was well-marked, as this was a startling transition to go from trail to rural highway), my heart jumped as I saw an aid station with food and water and ACTUAL HUMAN PERSONS TO TALK TO off in the distance. At the aid station, I caught up with a Japanese man in his 60s who was running his 621st marathon. No, that’s not a typo — this man over twice my age had allegedly run 620 full marathons before that day.
If he can finish this one, I told myself, then so can I.
MILES 12–15: The Highway to Hell
In the midst of all this beauty surrounding me, my one and only complaint about the course was the highway that we ascended for 3 miles from this aid station back toward the Targhee Base Area. It was a scenic road, yes, but the deep lugs on my trail running shoes protested each step as they embedded themselves into the soles of my feet. More than anything, it was the long and gradual nature of the incline that was killing me — I’d long since given up trying to run the uphills, and this modest 3-5% incline meant that I would be walking for the next 45-50 minutes until I reached the crest.
About halfway up the paved road, Mary’s husband Bill drove past me in his car, but when he realized it was me that he was passing, he rolled down his window to inform me that I was now in front of Mary and Roxanne. Impossible, I said, I definitely haven’t passed them. But in what has to be the most tremendous mid-race wrong turn I’ve heard of, Mary and Roxanne had turned left instead of right at the highway, and they didn’t realize their error UNTIL THEY REACHED THE IDAHO STATE LINE, adding 3 miles to their marathon. Mary called Bill on her cell phone, who then picked them up and dropped them off where they had made the wrong turn. Their trail marathon had just become an ultra.
After just under an hour of ascending this paved road, I reached the top of the highway and spent a good long time chatting with the lone volunteer at the aid station that greeted me. I was about to enter the woods again, and I couldn’t have been happier to get off this damn road.
MILES 15–21.2: Slowly Losing My Mind
Mary passed me at some point around Mile 16, and then Roxanne caught up to me about a half-mile later. For the next 3 hours, I would not encounter another runner traveling in my direction. The good news is that at this stage, my foot had turned into more of a dull annoyance than an active nuisance, but that pain had been replaced by incessant cramping in my quads and glutes. I settled into a pattern of walk-jogging the flat sections, and power hiking the uphill stretches.
Being alone in nature for so long, my mind started playing tricks on me. I felt like I was being watched by some unseen predator at all times, to the point where I pulled the bear spray out of my pack and ran with it for a stretch just for reassurance. I tried listening to my iPod for all of about 2 minutes, but then I had it in my mind that the bears and mountain lions were just waiting for me to let my guard down before they pounced, so I decided that it was better to be silent and alive than rocking out while walk-jogging into my impending death.
All of this time alone gives you a lot of time to think, and I asked myself all sorts of questions, ranging from the practical to the deranged:
How long has it been since I ate my last Stinger waffle? Why do people even eat pancakes, when waffles are clearly so superior? Should I go back to letting my dad’s accountant do my taxes? I’m 28 years old now, should I have my own accountant? If a bear or lion ate me RIGHT NOW, how long would it take the authorities to declare me dead? If I had to choose, would it be more badass to be eaten by a mountain lion, or by a bear? If I’m eaten, would my friends & family know that I’d much rather they spend lots of money on a huge party to honor me, instead of dropping coin on a nice funeral? Would one of my friends have the balls to make an awesome joke at my wake, like “He died doing what he loved….trying not to get eaten by a wild animal”? Do I have the patience to learn another musical instrument? When was the last time I had sex outdoors? What would I say is my favorite food if someone put me on the spot? Wait, why do I not readily know what my favorite food is? Did The Situation write his own jokes for his awful segment of Donald Trump’s roast? Do Donald Trump and The Situation hang out in real life? How did LeBron James’ people not realize that The Decision was a terrible idea? When will Taylor Swift realize that maybe she’s the problem?
And so on and so forth. The beautiful scenery was all starting to blend together, until I came across this:
I’m not sure about a lot of things in this world, but I’m 100% certain that this was a Walter White meth lab, tucked away in the shadow of one of America’s most majestic peaks.
Shortly after I passed this
greenhouse meth lab, I came across what for me was the most difficult terrain of the course, a mile-long stretch of ATV track that gained 800 feet of elevation. I couldn’t run, and no matter how far I hiked, the trail just continued to climb in front of me, imposing and never-ending. By the time I reached the top, I was horribly, utterly knackered.
Over the next two downhill miles, though, I gradually became reacquainted with my legs. I knew that I was all done with the extended punishing uphills, and the next two miles were delightfully relaxing. To my elation, I was able to jog the majority of this stretch, though I was never close to cracking even a 12-minute mile.
I had my one and only close call with the preserve’s indigenous wildlife around Mile 20, when an elk that I hadn’t noticed bugled alarmingly close to me. We had been told pre-race that the male elk in particular were a bit aggressive this time of year as they searched for a mate before the cold months, and I briefly froze as I locked eyes with this massive beast that was only about 30 yards from me. Having put my bear spray back in my pack when I started running this downhill portion, I slowly removed my pack to pull the spray back out, never once taking my eyes off of the elk in front of me. Of all the ways that I could die, “Raped to Death By An Elk” was not what I wanted my obituary to read.
In the end, the elk and I went our separate ways without incident, and I entered the Targhee Base Area at Mile 21 in surprisingly good spirits. I was almost done! Right?
MILES 21–26.2: Rick’s Basin, and Thoughts of Giving Up
“I got here as fast as I could!!” I laughed to the smiling volunteers as I approached the base area, who returned my laughter in kind. Within seconds, 4-5 volunteers were doting on me, asking if I wanted any sandwiches, watermelon, sports drink, cookies, anything really. None of this sounded particularly appetizing (not even the cookies, believe it or not), but I’d been running for almost 6 hours at this point, and I knew that I needed to eat something. And so I gratefully accepted a PB&J sandwich, refilled my water reservoir, chatted longer than I should have, and headed off for my final 5-ish miles.
The last section of the course entered a stretch of the forest preserve called Rick’s Basin, and as I left the base area one last time, the heavens finally opened up. The skies had been threatening rain since somewhere around the 5-hour mark, and for the first time all day, I felt raindrops splashing against my face. Of more immediate concern to me, though, were the bolts of lightning flashing across the sky from two different directions. Lightning conditions like this would cause a race in Chicago to be called off — would they do the same in the mountains of Colorado?
And then, there in the wilderness with no one else around me, I had a one-sided conversation with the Running Gods, during which I actually spoke out loud: Running Gods, I said to no one in particular, please let this weather hold off. If you can hold off on the torrential downpour, I swear to you now that I will not quit this race. The only way I will leave this course is either on an injury cart or with a medal around my neck. As I mentioned before, running alone can lead to crazy thoughts, and this pact seemed perfectly logical to me at the time. A constant mist continued, but the deluge that I feared never arrived, and I was able to continue on with my marathon.
(Note: I learned later that there was no chance they’d call off a trail race because of lightning — the race directors effectively decide that if you want to keep running, then you deserve whatever comes your way. Still, the deteriorating conditions put a renewed skip in my step to get this done and over with.)
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get my legs to turn over as fast as I wanted them to.
Between Miles 23 and 24, I gave it one last roll of the dice, and ran damn near a full mile without stopping. The terrain was this point was rolling rather than jagged, which lent itself well to stretches of extended running. In fact, had I only been out for a short 5-mile run and not a full marathon, this section of the race would have been quite lovely. I clocked my 24th mile in 14:21, which happened to be my fastest mile since Mile 11. After that mile, though, my legs simply quit on me. I had been able to run a full mile without a walk break, but at what cost? From that point on, I wouldn’t be able to jog more than 50 feet at a stretch.
I wasn’t feeling any acute pain; I was just aching. The deep lugs of my trail running shoes, once a great advantage, were now only serving to collect large chunks of mud between the lugs and make my shoes feel like heavy, awkward clogs. There would be no more running today. Right at the 7-hour mark, I was finally passed by a runner traveling in my direction. It had been a full 3 hours since I had had any interactions with a fellow runner, and we cheerfully wished each other luck over this last upcoming mile. Then, like that, she was gone and out of sight.
The last rolling mile seemed to go on forever — the trough of each hill brought with it an anticipation of what was to come over the subsequent crest, but I was mentally pegged back time and again as the top of each new hill brought no new tidings of an impending finish line. Until, finally, there it was.
I mentally steeled myself, and I was able to trudge the last quarter-mile or so at a grandfatherly pace. Cries of “Runner, here comes a runner!!” swelled up from the base area below, and I was greeted with warm smiles and more hospitality than I could have asked for when I crossed that finish line in a time of 7 hours, 21 minutes, and 23 seconds. Whatever problems I had during the race, I certainly could not attribute any of them to the phenomenal race volunteers. Accepting my medal, I didn’t linger long; I had been on my feet for 7+ hours without respite, and I craved a shower and a hot meal more than anything.
All I wanted was a shower.
I located the gracious race director and told him my story about how I came from out-of-town the morning of the race, which meant that I didn’t have a room at the resort where I could take a shower, and I really, really wanted a shower. He told me that he wasn’t 100% certain that there would be a shower facility open to the public at the Grand Targhee resort, but my best bet would be to see if the pool area was open. With some trepidation, I thanked him for the tip and limped back to my rental car to pick up my shower supplies, totally and comprehensively knackered.
As I sat down on the trunk of my car to painfully take off my shoes, to my surprise I found myself fighting back tears. I was just so tired, and I didn’t know where I would sleep that night — I only knew that I would be driving for at least a few hours before I would come across a city that had a Super 8 or comparable budget hotel room available. Camping for a 3rd night in a row was simply not an option I was willing to consider.
I trudged toward the pool area and thankfully found a shower room open and available, where I proceeded to take one of the Top 5 showers of my life. Clean and refreshed, I made use of my bib voucher that was good for a complimentary burger & chips at the resort’s bar & grill. Slowly but surely, my emotions returned to equilibrium, and I made peace with the drive that awaited me. Some hours later, I would find myself checking into a Super 8 motel in Green River, WY, where I would finally enjoy a cold beer and drift off into one of the most peaceful and uninterrupted sleeps of my life.
Within the first few hours of finishing my first ever trail run at altitude, I staunchly told myself that I would never do another one EVER AGAIN. But the following day, though, as I met my trail-running friend Jay back in Denver for a beer, I was already thinking out loud about what I could do in Chicago to train for my next trail marathon. I think it’s safe to say that I have the itch.
I’m not sure how trail marathons are supposed to be operated, but I have nothing but good things to say about the Grand Teton Races. The course was gorgeous (and well-marked!), the aid stations were well-stocked, the volunteers were incredible, there was/is a host of information available online about the course, and in general the folks running the race catered to the runner very well. At some point, I will be back — maybe not anytime soon in the coming years, but I will at some point return to this course where my trail running fascination began in earnest.