This is loooong and booooring. You’ve been warned.
Planned to run 24 hours after working a full day. Idea was to be awake at least 36 hours. Had an ambitious course that I’d never set foot on. Toned it down to Plan B which was just a simpler loop. But it turns out even that was a no go.
First thing I learned: In the Canyons, there is no cell reception unless your on a peak, and even then it can be iffy. So if you make plans where you might or will be out of communication, make sure the plans are bulletproof. Know exactly where to meet. I’ve only run with her Madison before, so I should have asked her what kind vehicle she was driving. She parked in the next parking lot, so I moved my car next to hers.
We left promptly on schedule at sunset, 6:21. Headlamps came out shortly. We had a pretty pleasant run up Church Fork to Grandeur Peak. When we got to the top, we saw someone had left a sword there, maybe from Halloween. Madison definitely won the “Dramatically pulling the Sword from the Stone” acting award. (Even though the sword was barely in the ground.)
When we got on the unmaintained and untraveled Mill Creek Crest trail, it was really hard to see where the trail was. And the ground was covered with these short bushes that further obscured the trail. So having the full brightness of our headlamps was critical. Always start a big run with brand new batteries, especially if time matters like in a race. And always have spare batteries. In my experience, batteries start to dim to unacceptable levels after 8-10 hours. The difficulty of the terrain may dictate how soon you should change them.
We would find the trail, run for a minute and then be looking again for the trail. Repeat this for two of the slowest miles ever. This was frustrating and one of the main lessons of the night. Just because you can see the trail on map, doesn’t mean squat – and even a phone app might not help. My dumb ass thinking I could find the route AT NIGHT was wildly mistaken. I should have gone and pre-run the course, especially since I invited someone to run with me. I felt like a jackass getting us lost. Thank goodness Madison was not upset.
We discussed that sometimes it’s okay to not know where you area all the time. Sometimes it’s okay to struggle to find the way. But after awhile of constantly not seeing the trail, of having no idea where to go, I started to get worried. I started to get that feeling when you’ve been drunk or tripping too long and you just want it to stop. It was more annoyance than panic. I would have killed for some small orange flags or cairns.
We persevered nightmare level bushwhacking until we reached a small peak. There was a steep drop off in the direction we were headed. We looked around the sides for a less steep route, but found nothing. After a fruitless search, Madison suggested we bail and backtrack. I fully agreed. This was a good example of being mentally flexible and not getting fixated on an objective. As much as I wanted to keep going since we were so close to Mount Aire, I knew she was right. And looking at a map now of where we were and where we were trying to get to, she absolutely made a smart call.
We turned around, and even backtracking was a bit of a challenge. At one point, we decided instead of going all the way back to where we split off from Church Fork, we could just drop into the canyon towards the road and eventually hit the trail. While that was true and we did eventually hit the trail, it was super sketchy. We had to slide down some steep scree fields. The whole time I kept thinking if anything happened to Madison, it was my fault. Fortunately the trail was relatively close which was a HUGE relief. We were ecstatic to be back on a trail and made our way back to the cars. I apologized for getting us lost
After Madison left, it was about an hour before Nate and Brian were scheduled to show up. I loaded my food and water, put on my down jacket and wrapped myself up in my down sleeping bag. I rested my eyes and brain a bit. Saw a few cars drive by. I turned on some music to rouse me as I got out of the car. Then two cars coming from each direction pull in on either side of me. I was like “Fuck yeah!” I don’t know why, but I thought it was so cool they both rolled up at the same time. They got situated, and we started off.
Told them Mill Creek Crest trail was a shit show and that we would have to resort to Plan C. Ascend Church Fork, down Grandeur west face, and then over to Pipeline and back. As they were getting ready, we had a bit of discussion on how to dress appropriately. It was pretty cold, there was a possibility of rain so it was important for us all to have the right clothing. I had been wearing a base layer, with a tech tee, and my windbreaker which had been working well so far. Later, I would find that I would like to have something more substantial for next time. Learning to dress for your temperament is critical in cold weather and comes with practice and experience.
We made it to Grandeur Peak easily. We took photos with the sword. Nate (in the red) looks like he’s pooping, I think he said as much.
As we descended the West face and began making our way towards Pipeline, there were some hiccups route finding. Nate seemed a little agitated, and rightfully so. I again felt I had let my friends down by not knowing the route. As we struggled uphill, it occurred to me that I should have done this at Bonneville Shoreline Trail. That is a much easier, flatter trail. Nate had even suggested that to me, but I thought it was too flat and I wanted to be a badass. Ahh, hindsight. The value of simplicity cannot be overstated. We finally made it to Pipeline. After plodding along, it was great to actually run on a flat wide trail.
As we got closer to the cars, I was sad and anxious. I was extremely jealous that they would be going home to shower and sleep in a comfortable bed and not be cold and not have to run anymore. I would be on my own for the next 6 hours.
We were done an hour early, so I took a nap. I had planned for 20 min which turned into close to an hour. Looking at the time, it was hard to will myself to leave the relative warmth of my down cocoon, go back into the cold night, and start running again. Memories of Julie’s “Don’t be a lil bitch!!!” stirred me into action.
I loaded up and was ready to roll, it was 6 am. I was right on schedule, which made me happy. I headed in the opposite direction from the last loop. Since I was on my own, I wanted to do the west face of Grandeur which is considerably harder than the Church Fork route. I warmed up and turned on my music which helped me feel less alone.
For the most part, I feel like I had been on top of my hydration and nutrition. My mental state had been pretty good up to his point. No injuries or gear issues. The weather was NBD. I had done this peak plenty of times to know what I was in for. I figured two hours and I’d be at the top.
It was tougher than usual. I kept stopping and checking my heart rate, which never seemed to be that high. I was huffing and puffing. The higher I got, the more I stopped. It began to flurry and the wind kicked up. It looked worse at the peak, so I stopped and put on my rain jacket, rain pants, and another pair of gloves. That was a smart move. I kept climbing for what seemed like an eternity. The wind intensified even more, blowing the snow into my face. All I could think was how bad this sucked.
Normally, I am pretty good at putting The Suck in perspective. I tried focusing on just the steps in front of me, but also kept looking up to see how much more I had to go. It was always A LOT. I tried to keep in mind that even though it looked super far, I would be there soon enough. FutureSelf usually reminds me of the long view, but was now conspicuously silent. PresentSelf was in full on pity party mode.
Since I was basically crawling, I had plenty of time to think up “reasons” to quit. I was “being smart so that I could live to run another day…” I didn’t Lexi to drive out here expecting to run and find that I could barely walk… I didn’t want to get sick and screw myself for Dead Horse on the 17th… I wasn’t having fun anymore… I was tired and cold and had had enough… None of which held much water.
Bottom line: mentally, I had given up.
I started thinking how I would explain to everyone why I gave up. What would I tell them? Did I have a legitimate enough excuse? Would I have to make something up? There would always be some silver lining to find. People would still give your credit for what you did do. It’s okay to fail. There was no real consequence to quitting.
Armed with all my “reasons” and assurances that no one would shame me for quitting, I texted Lexi that I was pulling the plug. As I hunkered down, shielding my phone from the oncoming snow, I was still completely conflicted about sending the message. After I hit the send button, I felt a mixture of 3% relief and 97% guilt and disappointment.
Recently, I have been concerned with knowing when to call it quits. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought this was one of those times it would be prudent. I wanted to show myself that I could be smart. But I think if you really should quit, you’ll feel it in your gut, you’ll just “know.” And on the flip side, you should also feel it in your gut when you should NOT quit. I think I knew in my gut that I shouldn’t quit, and that’s why I felt so conflicted and disappointed.
Shortly after sending the message, I reached the peak and immediately started descending. Literally, within the first few steps down, I realized my legs were fine. (Which shouldn’t have surprised me. By this point, I’d only run about 30 miles.) Was this some weird kind of fluke? I kept running, expecting to feel worse. Nope. Not a fluke. Legs are fine, it’s just your dumb, weak brain couldn’t manage to keep it together.
Excited by this new development, I got my phone to text Lexi to “put the plug back in.” She had sent a message 20 minutes ago. There might be a chance to catch her. I replied, but realized I no longer had cell reception and the message would not go through. I had needlessly bailed on my friend.
Happy I could run, but dejected and extremely disappointed that I had let another friend down, I stewed and tried to dissect what happened. My thinking has always been that during really long races, you’ll hit a low and want to quit. It’ll suck and seem like the end of the world. But if you can wait it out just a bit and take a step back, things will probably be okay. If I had waited till I got to the peak and gotten over the literal hump, I would have seen that I was fine, or at least less inclined to want to quit. Round and round my squirrel brain went, unable to pinpoint exactly why I gave up.
The snow came down a bit more. I was grateful that it was snowing and not raining. After hours of solitude, I passed a hiker. Then a couple, and then several more couples. And then I saw a girl trail runner.
She smiled at me. She had two hoods on, I didn’t recognize her; it was Lexi! OMFG! She decided to come out anyway and run me in the last mile. She parked way down the road next to some other car with Texas plates, had run the other direction, got the feeling she was going the wrong way and turned around and headed this way. She’d already run four miles. She was just as excited that she actually found me. I couldn’t believe the luck!
The whole way back, I was floored that she chose to run me in the last few miles without even knowing if she could find me. Most people would have just stayed at home and called it good. Even after I realized my legs were fine, I was resigned to quit. Her thoughtfulness saved my run. And for that, I thanked her profusely.
We ran back to my car and I resupplied. I wasn’t hungry, but Lexi suggested that I should eat whether I wanted to or not, which is almost always smart advice. We tried to cook up an instant heat up O-meal. You add water to this heating element and it cooks the food super fast. We added the water, wait almost 10 minutes…. nothing happened. Maybe the element is bad? Throw the wasted heating element in my bag. Took out the heating element from another meal, added water… again nothing! Then all of a sudden, the first element starts steaming furiously. I grabbed the bag and pluck out the element. Then again the other element goes off. It might be the cold, but I will never buy an O-meal again. I didn’t end up eating anything, but did have two beers as were “cooking.”
We discussed where we should run. Since I hadn’t been able to reach Mount Aire, I suggested we give that a try. The route was clear and involved no bushwhacking. I felt good physically. More importantly, mentally and emotionally I was a new man.
We ran down the trail and found the entrance to Mount Aire. We trucked upward in the muck and snow. I was moving as fast as a glacier. Eventually we made it to the peak. Surveying our surroundings, there was a huge peak to the east. Curious, I looked at the Gaia app. It was Mount Aire. We were on the wrong peak. (Insert eye rolling emoji.) It looked pretty formidable and was at least another 800′ of climbing. We were both pretty tired at this point and neither of us wanted to climb it, but we were so close and FutureSelf piped up that we would regret it if we didn’t.
So we started up the switchbacks.
It again began snowing. I don’t know how she does it, but Lexi was wearing short shorts and wasn’t fazed at all by the cold. We made it to the peak and couldn’t see much. We took a quick photo and immediately headed back down to get out of the cold. We saw a sliver of blue sky on the way down. Incredibly, once we had reached the ground, the sky behind Mount Aire was all blue.
The return run was fun. As we drew closer, I could smell the barn. We did some fartleks, and for a few of them, I ran hard. It was fun, joyful running.
I finished with 23 hours, but I still consider it a success considering I was going to quit after only 18. No need to find a silver lining here. Still cannot believe how this turned out. Super stoked to have had friends join me for this adventure. No one got hurt, we didn’t die, and we’ll probably do it again sometime.