March 2-3, 2007

Back on December 29-30, 2006, I hosted the first running of the Pony Express Trail 100.   Three of us completed a 100-mile run on the historic trail in western Utah, competing against frigid winter temperatures.  I completed that initial run in 25:29 and was anxious to give it another try.  Running buddy, Brent Rutledge suggested that we get out and run it again soon.   We looked at the calendar and decided on March 2-3, hoping for warmer weather conditions.   Yes, the Pony Express would “run” again!

This time, we would make some changes.  1. Experiment with an afternoon start.   All the 100-mile races I have run have started in the morning.  What would it be like to start in the afternoon and be much fresher running during the night?  2. We pushed the course out about 40 miles further west.  By doing this, we would have no pavement and be able to experience even more of the very remote Wild West near the Nevada border.  The course would still be a 100-mile end-to-end run.

I had two goals for this run.  1. Run the first 50 miles in under 10 hours.  2. Run the entire 100 miles in under 24 hours.  So far I had run 370 miles in training for 2007, so I felt I was ready to attempt my 14th career 100-miler in 2.5 years.  This could be my 10th finish if everything went off as planned.

Three weeks before the run, I came in contact with Jarom Thurston, a rookie ultrarunner, itching to make his first attempt at running 100 miles.  He had a good mileage base and I ran with him on a 25-mile training run.  He looked good and ready to attempt an “easy” 100-mile course.  Just typing the word “easy” in that last sentence made me laugh.  There is no such thing.

Well, the weather “hosed us”, as running buddy Phil Lowry observed.  A snow storm blew in the morning before our run, dumping several inches of snow on the first 40 miles of our course.  To make things worse, the jet stream was right overhead and the winds were fierce, causing me to put on an extra layer as we assembled near my home to carpool to the course.  It looked like we would have frigid temperatures similar to the run in December.   But the skies were clear and the forecast predicted that the wind would die down by evening.  I was confident that we would have a great run.

Near the start

(Picture by Jarom’s wife the next day)

At about 3:00 p.m., we arrived at the starting point at Lookout Pass and were pleased to feel that the wind was tolerable.  We would start using Jarom’s brother and friend as a crew.  A few hours later Brent’s crew would catch up so we would have two crew vehicles between the three runners.

Off we went!   I had not run a mile for almost a week and my legs were anxious to get going.   Jarom’s brother Heath joined in on the fun for the first 16 miles.  The four of us had a blast running down the canyon on the soft snow-packed surface.   As we passed by the Lookout Pony Express Station, I shared the history of the spot, including facts about the crazy 19th century pet cemetery.  The first several miles were a nice gradual downhill run.   I had fun, sometimes running with Jarom, and other times running with Brent. 

It was great to have a crew along the entire time.  They would stop and offer us stuff at least every half hour.   It was great service, and a great reminder to eat and drink often.

After about five miles, Jarom and Heath decided to kick it into gear and ran ahead.  I hung back with Brent, but soon my legs and competitive spirit wanted to push ahead.   I picked up the pace and eventually caught up with Jarom and Heath at Government Creek (mile 9).  We were on a fast pace, running the first nine miles in about 1:25.   I knew we were going out too fast and I heard from the crew that Brent was wondering why we were going so fast.  I was feeling great, so just kept pushing it.

The landscape was wonderful to see.   Unfortunately, none of us brought cameras for this run, so I have nothing to show.  But there were no structures, no utility poles, nothing as far as the eye could see.  The sky was clear blue.  The mountain ranges all around us were snow-capped and the desert floor sprouted grass and bushes from the newly fallen snow cover.   The temperature was in the low 30s, but we felt wonderful running in the Wild West, leaving all our cares behind us.

Pony Express Station reconstructed at Simpson Springs

I pushed on ahead of Jarom about a quarter mile.  I could see Brent far behind, just a little figure on the straight road as I neared Simpson Springs (mile 16.6).   I arrived there at the 2:33.   I continued on along the very straight road to the west.   Jarom was only a couple hundred yards behind.   I goofed around, running off the road in the snow, zigging back and forth, hoping that Jarom would catch up and give me some company.   Well, that delay didn’t work, he was still behind, so I just kicked it into a higher gear and wondered how far ahead I could go.

The sun was finally setting.  At one of my stops, the crew pointed out the full moon rising in the east.  I let out a whoop of joy!  It would be a wonderful night running by moonlight.   By the time I reached the ancient riverbed (A dry riverbed a couple miles across), darkness had arrived.   I reached the Riverbed Pony Express Station site (mile 24.6) at the 4:08 mark.  I was more than a half hour ahead off my goal pace.   It was nice to have some hills for a change descending and climbing out of the amazing ancient riverbed.   While running in the bottom, I flashed my light behind me and saw a return flash from Brent about a mile and a half behind descending the hill.   It was fun to flash hello signals with our lights.  Brent’s crew had arrived.  I continued to use Jarom’s crew because they were much closer.   Back in Pony Express days, the station keepers were convinced that this location was haunted by “desert fairies.”   I couldn’t see any spooks around tonight.

The moonlight shined brighter and brighter on the desert landscape.  Later at night it would be so bright it felt like I needed sun glasses!  I ran along the road without any lights.   Behind me I could see the lights of the two crew vehicles which helped me gage where Brent and Jarom were.  It seemed like Brent was falling far behind.   I thought he must be having trouble.  I quickly noticed how fresh I felt during this early evening hour.  In most 100-milers at night I feel wasted and struggle to make good progress at night.  But with the afternoon start, I still had plenty of energy and looked forward to a great night run.

Finally, about the 30-mile mark, Jarom caught up.  I stopped and gave him a high five.   He was doing great.   We ran together for a couple minutes, but soon Jarom pushed on ahead.  I had hoped that we could run together for awhile, but I was having a low point so couldn’t keep up.

The temperature took a nasty dive at about the 50K mark (5:37).  The crew reported it was 11 degrees.  The wind was stiff, driving the wind-chill temperature down below zero.  I was wearing ski goggle that helped quite a bit and I covered almost every inch of my face.  At the next stop, I struggled to quickly get some hand warmers in my fleece mittens.  I was shaking so hard, that I just couldn’t get the crazy things out the packet.   Finally I just dove in the back seat of the truck to find some warmth for a couple minutes.  Rob and Heath were surprised.  They thought I was quitting.   No, I was just didn’t want to turn into a popsicle.   I spent about two minutes recovering and then pushed myself back out into the arctic air.  My water bottle was frozen, so I left it in the truck to warm up.   I had a cooler in the truck bed, which kept my fluids from freezing.  I grabbed a coke bottle and quickly hit the road again.  The wind pierced all my clothes and I started to really suffer.  My frozen fingers went numb and started to swell up.   For the next couple miles, I started to wonder if we were in for this punishment the entire night.  It was only about 9 p.m.   This was far colder than the December run.

Another problem arose.  With the fast start, I noticed that my quads were trashed.  I’m sure the cold didn’t help.  They soon became very sore and it became difficult to run fast.    All I could do was grin and bear it.

Thankfully, as we got closer and closer to the Dugway Mountain range, the temperature rose dramatically.  I could feel sweat starting to flow again and I could take off the ski goggles.  The crew reported that it was now 27 degrees.   I recovered nicely, but Jarom hadn’t missed a beat and was about 1.5 miles ahead.   I flashed my lights behind me and could see Brent’s headlamp several miles behind.   During the first running of the Pony Express 100, I was 5-6 miles ahead of the next runners all night.  It was a lonely feeling to be running ahead into the dark.  I reflected that this time, with Jarom ahead and Brent behind, I felt confident, fine, and not alone.   Strange, but I enjoyed running in second much better than first.

One of our footprints in the snow

(Taken by Jarom’s wife in the morning

The climb up to Dugway Pass was fun, a nice steep climb that used different muscles.  From the top of the pass, there was no sign of Brent far below.   I worried that he was having trouble and I felt guilty not being back with him.   Over the pass, I looked forward to the long gradual downhill run for the next several miles.   I could see Jarom’s tracks in the snow.  I matched his stride and could tell that he was still running at a nice fast pace.   He was now a couple miles ahead.  

For the next 13 hours, we would experience a fun pattern.   Jarom would always be 1-3 miles ahead.  The crew would drive ahead until they reached Jarom.  They would stop there to crew him and then wait for my arrival.   Once I arrived and got what I wanted they would drive ahead until they again reached Jarom.  This quickly turned into a game for me.   I would check my watch each time the crew left, and each time I caught up.  In this way I could tell how far ahead Jarom was.   When I could see the road ahead for miles, I could see the truck drive ahead and then stop.   It looked so close, but I knew it was a couple miles down the road.

As I was nearing Black Rock, at about mile 48, I could see the lights of Brent’s crew vehicle 4-5 miles behind.  I was happy to finally see it again.  But I soon noticed that the lights kept getting closer and closer.  Finally it caught up to me and stopped.  In the truck cab I saw Brent.  Oh no!   Brent explained that he was finished.  His stomach shut down.  He tried everything he could think of, but was now badly dehydrated and had to quit.  He mentioned that he hadn’t taken in enough sodium along the way.   I felt bad that I wasn’t there to help.  They drove on to tell the other crew that they would be returneing home.   When they came back I again talked to them and they wished me good luck.

I pushed on and reached the 50-mile mark at 9:55 (about 1:00 a.m.), just six minutes slower than my 50-mile PR.  That was a disappointment to miss it, but I was still on my goal pace.   With my delay talking to Brent, I noticed that I was falling further behind Jarom.  At one point I was 45-minutes behind.  I was very impressed that he was still cranking out the pace so quickly.  But…I knew that everything can change in the last 40 miles.

Nearing Fish Springs, I started to feel a low-carb bonk coming on.  I slowed way down and did my best to fight it off and eat everything I had.  After about 30 minutes I started to feel well again.  That would be my only low energy point of the entire run.

I reached Fish Springs (mile 58.3) at 11:43 (about 2:45 a.m).  From that point on, I was running on a portion of the trail I had never seen before.  The next several miles took a wide turn around a mountain range that bordered the salt flats.   I experimented with a much faster pace and was thrilled to discover that my quads felt much better if I ran about two gears faster.  I was 40 minutes behind Jarom.  For the next few hours, I tried hard to decrease the time behind Jarom40, 35, 30, 25, 20.   That was the closest I could get, a little more than a mile behind Jarom and then I would fall behind again.

Far off across the barren salt flat desert, I could see the lights of the tiny town of Callao.  It seemed so close, but I knew we were still more than ten miles away.  I arrived at Boyd Pony Express Station monument (mile 72.2) at 15:26.   The dawn soon arrived.   I did some calculations and realized that I had run nearly 50 miles during the darkness.  That was an impressive night accomplishment during a 100-miler.

The morning was wonderful.  I was amazed that I didn’t experience much sleepiness.  I was drinking Coke as my main source of fluid, so I’m sure that helped.   My intake was mostly Coke, Ensure, and wonderful warm soup.  I had three thermoses that remained nice and hot all night.  Chicken broth, Potato and beef soup, and hot watered-down Ensure.  They worked great to keep carbohydrates and sodium flowing into my system.  I also took occasional S-caps, and feasted on Reeses Easter eggs.  Yum, yum.   My hydration level stayed very high.

The sun peeked over the low mountains to the east and quickly warmed me up.  I soon peeled over layers and put on sunglasses.  I pulled out my GPS and concentrated on a new game.   I had marked the waypoints for every five miles of the run.  I set my goal for the 80-mile mark and tried to keep my pace close to 5 mph.   When I reached the 80-mile mark, I did calculations to see how fast I would have to run to break 24 hours.  I was pleased to see that there was still more than six hours to run the remaining 20 miles.   I could do this!   I knew that the last 13 miles would be uphill, so I must clock these next seven flat miles as quickly as I could.   My quads were screaming.  This was going to be long and painful.

I arrived at the tiny ranch town of Callo.  I laughed as I saw a sign going into the town that mapped out the roads and all the properties in the little town.   This remote town was probably more than 70 miles from what most people consider civilization.   I noticed a few people stirring in the early morning.  The innocent remote feeling of the place was refreshing.  It was a quiet and beautiful oasis in the desert.  The road zigzagged through town and I was soon heading north on the final four-mile stretch before the long climb to the top of a high pass now in view.

The crew mentioned that each time they caught up with Jarom that he hoped to see me in the cab, calling it quits.  He wanted to quit.  Even though my quads were screaming, I had no intention of quitting.   They said that Jarom was struggling.  I thought, “If he was really struggling, I would catch up.”  No, he was keeping the same pace and doing fine.   I told them that anyone who DNFed a 100 miler after mile 85 always regretted it.

At about mile 87, the Pony Express Trail turned west and started to climb into the hills.   My pace slowed dramatically.  I concentrated very hard to keep it close to 4 m.p.h., but it kept slowing at times below 3 mph.  The road became steeper.   I soon realized that I made a terrible mistake to have this course finish with this grueling climb.  I thought it was only 1,000 feet, but it turned out to be more than 2,000 feet.   It felt like 5,000 feet.   What a cruel way to finish a 100-miler.   The crew said that Jarom was having a hard time and they suggested something like running back down the road to finish.   What?   No, my stubborn, no-quit nature refused.  I wanted to go all the way to the planned finish.

Me talking to Jarom.  He couldn’t move anymore.

Jarom’s father and wife drove up near the 93-mile mark.   Rob or Heath explained that Jarom was up ahead in trouble.   Just around the next turn, I saw Jarom stopped, standing near the side of the road.   When we all caught up to him, he explained that he was done.   His breathing was painful, his taste buds weren’t functioning, and he couldn’t pick up his feet anymore.  He wisely decided to stop and I did not try to convince him to continue on.

Me, going on toward the finish

I asked if I could keep going.  The crew said I could and they would go with me to the end.  Jarom’s dad would drive him back.  I promised try to finish fast.   I still had plenty of time to break 24 hours, but I still had more than 1,000 feet to climb.  Using the GPS, I made sure my pace never fell below 3 m.p.h.  

When I arrived at the ruins of the Canyon Station, I paused to quickly explore the site.  I explained to Rob and Heath about the history of this site.  There were actually two sites and they both were destroyed by fire.  At one site, Indians killed all the station keepers.  This replacement site was high on a hill, a very good defense point.  But it later was also destroyed by fire.  The crumbling walls still remained.

After that diversion, I concentrated on finishing this run.  I plugged into my MP3 and found a great song to help push my pace hard.   I couldn’t run, but my power walk was strong and fast.   The higher I went, the deeper the snow.  The road wound through a beautiful canyon that started to fill with bushes and trees.  Even though this was a cruel way to finish, I was glad that I could experience this part of the trail.

As the finish came closer and closer, my new goal was to break my 100-mile PR (25:29) by over 2 hours.   I could do it.  I watched the GPS closely and at all times kept my pace quick enough to meet this goal.   Finally I reached the top of the pass and the landscape opened up into a high spacious field.   I was near the top of this massive climb and only had a half mile to go.  I would make it!   In the early afternoon, I reached my goal and finished 100-miles on the Pony Express Trail in 23:26.  I let out a cheer.  No one was there to hear it.  I wished my friends could have made it to the finish too.

There was no sign of the crew.  I worried that they might be having problems.  I had no choice but to start heading back down the road to the last point I saw them.   Thankfully in a few minutes they arrived and picked me up.   I struggled terribly to pull myself into the truck.   Generally, I felt pretty good, but my quads were seriously trashed.   It felt so good to finally sit down again.

So, the second running of the Pony Express Trail 100 is history.  Both times I experienced difficult weather conditions but still pressed hard to the finish.  The long ride back along the trail boggled my mind that anyone could travel that far on foot in just one day.  But I did it.  As I went through me recovery, I already had wishful thoughts about my next 100-miler.