4th Place and My First Hundred-Miler at The Grand Mesa 100

July 29, 2012

After two and a half years of training, planning and ignoring important parts of my life (like my girlfriend, sleeping, paying bills on time, etc.), I finally ran my first 100-miler.

In fact, I completed the Grand Mesa 100, one year to the day after I completed my very first 50-miler, which was 51 weeks after I completed my very first marathon. Marathon to 100 in two years.

I picked the Grand Mesa 100 as my first race back in January because it seemed mellow and local. Originally I was deciding between GM100 and Leadville. But with Leadville swelling to 600+ runner, it seemed like just too much of a production for a rookie 100-miler like me and a rookie crew and pacers. In retrospect, I think made the right choice.

The most amazing thing about the whole experience was how not big of a deal it was. You know, the whole running 100 miles things. Before the race I half-consciously, half-subconsciously decided that I wouldn’t think about the length. One hundred miles is a really damn far length. So if I didn’t think about the fact that I was about to attempt to run 100 miles, it wouldn’t see that damn far. It turns out it worked. 

Liza, Brett and I rolled into the Grand Mesa Lodge Friday afternoon for the briefing. Things were drizzly and starting to get waterlogged. It would be nice to keep the dust down, but I think we were all more concerned with spending the next day and a half in cold rain. The race director Phil gave us a little rundown of watch-outs. He mentioned that they had placed course markings every quarter mile or so, so… just keep an eye out. Brett and I gave each other a look. Every quarter mile is pretty far for “confidence flags.” Doesn’t instill much confidence. This would become a theme for the race. 

Matt and Wendy showed up a little later, and we all scarfed a first dinner compliments of the race, retired to our cabin, went over the plan for the next 24+ hours, scarfed a second dinner and then passed out. 

The view of Island Lake from our cabin window

Homey surrounds at the Grand Mesa Lodge

The 4:00 alarm went off and I popped out of bed. Honestly, it’s the most rest I’ve ever been before a race (and especially more rested than my last race). I made some final prep, slammed a bagel and then we walked up to the starting line just a few hundred feet from the cabin.

Prep in the cabin

Prep in the dark

Jumping off the starting line, 100-mile style

The mellow vibe was confirmed when around 5:00ish, after the twenty 100-milers and thirty or so 60Kers had gather, the race director Phil said, “Hey Rick, you wanna count down?” Rick, the assistant RD, said, “Uh, sure. Uh, 3… 2… 1…” And we were off. Just 100 miles to go. 

The first leg would be a 11.5-mile loop up Crag Crest and back to the start/finish. Fifty of us crashed through forest trails, following our headlamps and jockeying for positioning. We’d traveled about 3 miles when I first noticed it: I hadn’t seen a flag in a good half mile, and we’d just went through a trail intersection with zero markings. I spoke up to the other runners near me. “Hey, you guys seen anything?” “Uhhhh…” We ran on a little more, scanning for flags. Nothing. We hadn’t missed a turned. We didn’t think at least. We ran a little more, hoping to see something. Nothing. How could we have gotten lost three miles into the race? This did not bode well for my day. After another half mile or so, we all got nervous and decided to stop. A few guys behind us caught up and confirmed that they hadn’t seen anything either. Now there was a conference of about 10 of us right in the middle of the trail. We debated, reasoned and tried to remember. Finally, a few of us decided to go back. But after we had made it a few hundred feet, we saw another group of runners headed towards us, which convinced us that we had been going the right way all along. We turned around again, hoping we were right. 

It took another half mile or so before we saw anything, but thankfully we finally saw something—two people standing at an intersection cheering. To double-, triple-check, I asked them if we were on the right trail, and we were. Confidence markers, huh? 

The trail turned and we began to climb up a large rocky ridge. Crag Crest is essentially one long, narrow trail that drops off about 600 feet on either side. It’s absolutely spectacular, and we hit it right at sunrise. The hard part was trying to not trip and fall and die as you ogle the scenery. Probably the most stunning part of the course. 

I had budgeted 2:30 for the loop in my schedule, trying to force myself to take things slow. But of course I was having fun, so I found myself rolling into the first aid station at the start/finish in just 2:05. (Blame the extra 5 minutes of the getting lost episode.) I grabbed said hi to the crew, grabbed a handful of watermelons and took off. 

Grabbing a quick fill-up

The trail from the Lodge to Granby Lakes and then to Flowing Park was a pretty coarse course—large pools of standing water every, really rocky and extremely poorly marked. It wasn’t all that fun to run 12 miles into the race. I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like 90 miles in. Over this section, I ended up hooking up with Bryce Astill. He was a buddy of Matt’s from Salt Lake that I’d met at the briefing. We ran together for a bit, trading stories and grumbling about the atrocious course markings. Typical runner stuff. And we were flying. 

In fact, we were making such good time that when we rolled into the Flowing Park aid station, neither of our crews were there. No matter. We filled our water up and took off.

The next section is another big, 14.5-mile loop out to the rim of the mesa and Indian Point then back to the Flowing Park aid station. Bryce and I ran it together for another few miles, but I eventually pulled ahead and wouldn’t see him for another 25 miles. The outbound section was pretty miserable. The whole loop was super flat, but the first half of the trail was strewn, like STREWN, with rocks and tufts of grass. I couldn’t go a 500 feet without catching a toe and nearly up-ending myself. Miraculously, I never actually beefed—never did the entire 100-milers in fact—but the stubbed toes were awful. (By the time I made it back to Flowing Park, I was convinced I had already lost my big toe on my left foot. When I took the shoe off and found everything perfectly in place, I was almost a little disappointed.)

Halfway into the loop, there should’ve been a limited aid station, but as I ran on, I still hadn’t seen anything. I didn’t think my pace had dropped that much, but I was feeling a little lightheaded and weird so maybe it had. It all added up to me feeling like something was either off with me or the race. But maybe they didn’t even set up the aid station. I tried to shrug it off.

About two miles later, I happened upon the volunteers and their horses. They’d stopped about two miles short of where they were supposed to be. So I was much farther along than I had thought. Phew. And, they told me, I was in 4th place.

I made it back to Flowing Park, had my first little sit down after 37.5 miles of running. It was a short jaunt between there and Carson Lake where I’d pick up Matt so I wanted to get there. According to the race directions and previous years’ race reports, this section was where a lot of people get lost. For whatever reason, it all seemed pretty clear to me, and I pulled into Carson Lakes without incident. But just as I was, another runner (Michael Carson) came blasting past me like I was standing still. There was a lot of cheering from the volunteers, more so than the normal, encouraging cheers. When I got into the aid station, one of the volunteers explained that two guys in front of me had gotten lost and no one knew where they were. The guy that flew past me was one of them. So I guess that means the section was tougher to navigate than I thought. It also means that I was briefly in 2nd place for a few miles. (After the aid station, I was 3rd.)

Oh hey

Catching a breather at Flowing Park along with a pacer in the 50 and member of Fleet Foxes

A disappointing lack of toenail missing

Back to it

I picked up Matt and we headed out and down the Kannah Creek Trail. The weather had been absolutely wonderful so far. Just slightly overcast and coolish, pretty amazing for this race and this time of year. But as Matt and I descended the 4,000 feet in 8.5 miles down to the bottom of the mesa, things started to heat up. The trail quickly turned into a nasty slog of mud and cow shit as we picked our way down. There was even the remains of a dead cow and a few of its bones that gave off a particularly odoriferous stench. 

About halfway down, the jungley section gave way to an arid, scorching dust ball. I had originally told Matt that maybe I’d pick him up after this section or after the big climb back up to the top of the mesa since it would suck for him. But the truth that it sucked for me too, and I told him that I was pretty glad to have him there. It took us two hours and an entire 2-liter hydration pack of water, but it felt like we were finally reaching the bottom. 

We saw what looked like the bottom and suddenly heard a chorus of cowbells and hoots rising from below. For a bit, we didn’t think it could be for us since we didn’t see anybody, but the cheers continued on, and so we started hollering back. It was another few minutes before we pulled into the aid station, but the yells had gotten to me. For whatever reason, this was the moment that really got me. My eyes started to well up and I was overcome with a wave of emotion. I think it was just deep gratitude and happiness. It was a beautiful feeling. But I was also glad I had my glasses on so no one could see me.

Matt and I took a seat and slammed some water and food. I’d just traveled 50 miles like it was nothing. I mean, it wasn’t easy, but normally this is the point in a race when I’m done, but this time, it was just another stop along the way.

We tried to cool off and refuel as best we could when we heard more cheers and cowbells. A few moments later, Bryce emerged from the trail. We chatted/grunted for a bit, and then he took of with his pacer. It’s a bummer to get passed at an aid station, but I guess it’s less demoralizing than getting passed on the trail. Matt loaded up with some brownie/avocado/chip concoction that he would shut up about later, and we took off too.

We were staring 4,000-foot climb back up to the top of the mesa in 5.5 miles right in the face. This would be the hardest part by far. I was pretty beat at this point and told Matt to get comfortable because I was going to walk the whole thing. Bryce had disappeared. He must’ve been trucking it up the hill, trying to catch second place. Twenty minutes later, the trail started to get really narrow and disappear. No flags around. Matt thought we’d missed a turned, and right then, Bryce and his pacer came tromping down the trail towards us. We were all lost. So the four of us, backtracked about a third of a mile until we found a turn-off that we had all missed. That one was probably our fault. Bryce and friend took off, clearly feeling a lot stronger than me. That’s fine. This was my first rodeo, and my only real goal was to finish.

Man, that climb sucked. It was getting steeper and messier. The trail was obviously almost never used. (Why would you ever want to hike this miserable climb?) At points we were pushing through bushes or pulling ourselves over rocks on a V-shaped, rock-and-debris-covered trail. The mid-afternoon heat was also sapping a lot of our (or my, I guess) energy. We got a short reprieve with a welcomed sun shower, but for the most part, this was not my favorite part of the race. We kept looking up, trying to figure out where the trail was taking us and how the hell we were going to get a few thousands feet higher, straight up the cliffs. I think I told Matt that this was all exactly as hard as I had expected, not more, not less.

As we neared the top, I was losing steam. And I was out of food too. Matt was worried I was starting to bonk so he made me choke down the second half of a Cliff Bar, which saved me. Across cresting a ridge and a little more hiking, we made it to Switchback Trail, which appropriately cut back and forth taking us right up the nearly vertical side of the mesa. A little more hiking, and we started to hear shots from above. Again, we didn’t think they could be for us, must be for Bryce. I took another five minutes before we made it up and saw Liza, Wendy and Brett shouting down to us and telling us to quit talking and hurry up there. 

It took us 3 hours, but we made it up to Lands End Road. We were tapped on water and food so I was extremely grateful to have everyone there in my Jeep.  A volunteer informed me that Tim Long (last year’s winner) had already dropped at mile 50 (he had run Hardrock two weeks before so that seems fair), and Bryce had gained 30 minutes on me during the climb. It was another 3 short miles to the next true aid stations, which is where I really wanted to stop and have a good rest. So we grabbed a gel and a little water and set off on pavement for Lands End.

The goal

Liza (somewhat) patiently waiting for us on the mesa above

The view from above as we neared the top

Somehow still smiling after all of that

Blasting the road to Lands End, tongue out

We plunked down at Lands End. It was 7:00, and I’d traveled 58.5 miles. This would be my one rest. Matt and I feasted, wraps, sandwiches, bottles of Coke, bananas. I soaked my feet in a little cold water. It was glorious. And man, I was just having an awesome time. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be surrounded by friends. We were just chatting and having fun. We talked with the volunteers and HAM radio operators a bit. I was having a blast. 

That’s when I looked down at my watch and realized that we’d somehow spent nearly 25 minutes there. I told Matt to suit up and let’s go. Back to it.

Enjoying a chat, maybe a little too much

This felt so good

The 6 miles from Lands End to Anderson Lake were a straight, boring dirt road. Nothing bums me out more than roads. They’re just mindless and drain the legs. I still wasn’t feeling up to snuff either so Matt forced me to choke down more of a turkey tortilla wrap, which, despite my complaining, probably helped. 

Then he started chatting away about all kinds of nonsense. Just weird, silly shit. At first I thought maybe I was starting to finally get a little wacky in the brain. Then I realized it wasn’t me. Matt was just going crazy on this long road. Later on that night, the same thing would happen every time we’d get on a road: Matt would start to get weird. 

There were a few bright spots of the road though: We ran through a herd of cows on the road. They had some young calves and eyed us threateningly so we picked up rocks just in case and yelled at them about turning them into burgers. We won. Another thing was the amazing sunset. At one point I turned around and saw one of the reddest, juiciest sunsets I’ve ever seen behind us. And off the mesa to the north, a thunderstorm was dumping rain and lightning everywhere. Lastly, Matt gave me some Ibuprofen. I’d been against it, but my legs were really starting to feel trash, and seeing as Matt is a doctor, he convinced me it’d be good idea. So finally, after a little resistance, I popped four of them. I also dove into a candy bar that I had brought with me from Lands End. 

We finally got into the Anderson Lakes aid station, kept it brief and took off finding our way across several cow fields. It had finally gotten dark so we flipped on our headlamps. In a mile or two, we were on soft singletrack, tearing through forest paths around the Mesa Lakes.

I felt amazing. Like, the best I’ve ever felt. 

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt so high on a run before. It was probably a combination of getting back on a really fun trail, the night running which is always a little invigorating and the pot lock dinner of Ibuprofen, candy bar and Coke I had just had. In fact, I know it was because I remember that I kept shouting shit like, “Woo! I got some of that Superman Juice!” (Super Juice, in my brain, was somehow a combo of the pills, candy and Coke.) Almost 70 miles into a run, and I’ve never felt better in my entire life.

This continued on for a bit as we circled Mesa Lake and nearly missed a very odd turnoff. The course veered off at about a 150-degree turn straight into the woods. Luckily, I just happened to notice before we got too far, and we traipsed off into the forest. We were basically bushwhacking for a quarter-mile until we can out on a gravel road. The whole thing was so weird that we were afraid we’d missed the aid station (which was where we were supposed to pick up Brett). We pulled out the race directions, which said to follow the road a half-mile to the aid station, so we continued on. But a half-mile turned into much longer. We started to worry again that we’d missed the aid station. But after a bit more fretting (and what was definitely way more than half a mile), we hit the Mesa Lakes aid station. It really should’ve been named something else because it’s not near the lake. And we weren’t the only ones confused. Apparently Bryce and his pacer had missed the turnoff and circled around the lake another time looking for the course. We missed them at the aid station by just a minute or so. 

And we had more running to do, so Brett slipped on his headlamp and took off with us. We knew from the directions that there was another turnoff coming up, and a volunteer had told us it was a little ways up the road. So we went up the road a ways, and the flags suddenly disappeared. Turns out, the turn was just a few hundred feet past the aid station and straight up a grassy embankment that had no trail. OK, weird. But we followed it. 

This section turned into a rock scramble over a field of debris, but we finally pulled ourselves up, turned right at a garage and follow what was described as “an old logging road.” There must’ve been a road there many, many years ago, but now it was just a lumpy, grassy mess that was pretty difficult to run at points. That dumped us out to a field, which was even lumpier. There were strange airy mounds of dirt everywhere. Step on one and your foot sinks in. Also, watch out for the rocks that are everywhere. We tried to run what we could, but were slowed to a walk for the most part. It wasn’t worth risking a broken ankle at this point in the race and with this little light. 

The field finally dropped us out onto another dirt road that honestly seemed to go on forever. Matt got a little loopy again, and my legs started feeling it. When we finally pulled back into Anderson Lakes for the second time, Bryce and crew were there. They had gotten lost again coming out of Mesa Lakes and were a little confused on the road. It was good to see more bodies at an aid station, but I think it spooked him, and he took off as quickly as he could. We followed a few minutes behind him. 

The path from Anderson Lake to Carson Lake in my head was almost straight as the crow flies, which meant that we were just cutting straight cross country, across more cow fields and dirt-mound fields and water-logged fields all sorts of thing. All the while we were following little 3M reflector tape and blinking red bike lights on the other sides. I had dropped my bottle of Perpetuem at Lands End so I was fully on solid food at this point. Brett forced me to eat half a PB&J, which I did a little reluctantly. 

We came to another strange intersection as we hit a small path that ran next to a parking lot then dumped out into a gravel road. The markings just ended here. There was a signpost with an arrow pointing left, but there was really zero consistency with the markings all along the course, and this one just seemed like some leftover something. Behind the sign was a big field of tall plants (corn? weeds?). We read and re-read the directions from the course packet, but they were super vague. So we hopped down off the road, into the field of tall things and started bushwhacking around, looking for any sort of marker. Nothing. 

Eventually we just threw our hands up and decided to flow the road in the direction of the arrow and hope for the best. We made it a few hundred feet down the road when I looked down into the field and saw something shiny. A flag, about a hundred feet off the road. Then, there was another one parallel to the road. Then a few more. We just followed them from up on the road until they eventually veered off and cut across the field diagonally. I still have no idea what was happening at that intersection, but at least we were back on the trail (or at least bushwhacking it across a field).

Back at Carson Lake, we happily scarfed some food. They had an amazing potato soup that I remember being unable to stop raving about. It was so good and so warm. The girls were supposed to meet us there but were asleep in the Jeep so we just let them sleep and then woke them up before we slipped out. 

Fifteen miles to go. This was the homestretch. Because of the way the course is designed, there’s a short out-and-back a third and final time to Flowing Park which provides a two-mile stretch where you could potentially be running right at the racer in front of you or behind you. About a mile and a half out, we saw lights ahead. We’d been walking a bit here so I told Brett and Matt to stiffen up and break into a brisk jog. We had to look strong.

Sure enough, it was Bryce and his pacer, and they were looking strong too. (After the race the next day, Bryce and I were comparing notes and both admitted that we were walking until we saw each other’s headlamps and made everyone look strong. Ha. The tactic worked, too. I knew Bryce had gained a good two or three miles on me, which I also knew would be impossible to make up. And Bryce saw that I was still close, which lit a fire under his ass to speed up.) 

Theatrics aside, we got into Flowing Park and scarfed some beans and rice and Pepsi. (They didn’t have Coke. I was scandalized.) It was actually me that dragged Matt and Brett back onto the road. I was ready to finish this thing. And I was getting paranoid that I’d look across the lake and see a pair of lights closing in on us.

But no such lights came. And we trucked on. This was really the homestretch. Ten miles over Granby road back to the Lodge. But if during the morning the conditions had been bad and the course had been poorly marked, 21 hours later the conditions were terrible and the course markings were non-existent. It was almost all walking from here. The rocks and standing water and poor visibility had made the trail another ankle-breaking liability that I wasn’t into risking. And the course was very, very sporadically marked, there were almost no 3M reflectors, and intersections had zero markings, so we were always a little unsure if we were still on course. To make things even more fun, for the first time, the sky opened up and started raining on us sideways. It was cold and wet and wet and cold, and we couldn’t find this last damn aid station. I remember it being run by Boy Scouts in the morning. Maybe they had packed things up. 

It was 4:00 in the morning, and I’d been running for 23 hours.

Finally we happened upon that last blessed aid station. It’s amazing, but there were two kids and two adults still up. I just wanted to finish, but Brett and Matt wanted a little food. That’s when Matt handed me a bowl of instant mashed potatoes with potato soup poured over it like gravy. That is probably the hands-down best thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. I ate it ravenously and washed it down with two cups of Mountain Dew. Time to finish. We thanked the volunteers profusely and set off. 

It would be one long death march to the finish. Brett is a high school cross-country coach, but that means he doesn’t put down 30+ mile runs. And he had just gone from Atlanta at 800 feet to Grand Mesa at 10,000. He was starting to drag. But then again, we all were. 

I’m not sure whether seeing the sun rising helped or hurt. But either way, it just was. We ambled along until finally we saw the turn for the hill that would take us up to the finish. Ironically, it was marked with 12 different flags. Twelve. I counted. It would say the emotion was a combination of mad and amused. 

A few minutes later and we heard more cheering above it us. It was Liza and Wendy there to help us bring it home. I gave a brave little jog and finally, 100+ miles later, crossed the finish line in 25:16 and in 4th place.

I did it.

RD Phil was there and handed me my finisher’s buckle. The girls handed us Victory beers. And then we tore into some chicken enchiladas that Phil was kind enough to make us. It was the best I’ve ever felt at 6:30 in the morning.

I did it.

After attempting to down another beer, we limped down to our cabin to shower, eat some soup and then pass out.

Typical finish-line pose

Did it

190 miles collectively

The 17th person ever to receive the finisher’s buckle

Victory beers, quite literally

Brett passes out above his soup

One other treat that I’ll mention was seeing Hans-Dieter Weisshaar first the race around 3:30 that afternoon. Everyone was introduced to Hans during the Friday briefing by none other than Hans himself. He was a jovial, mischievous 72-year old boy. At the time, we were all just astounded that this old guy with a thick German accent was going to attempt to run 100 miles. By the time he finished, we were even more astonished. I passed him when I was inbound from Indian Point back to Flowing Park and he was outbound. He was carrying nothing except for a small bottle and cup. And I’m sure he had essentially zero support or crew. (I, on the other hand, was 27-years old and rely on goo, powders, two pacers, two crew, etc.) As we passed me, he leaned in and said, “I’m glad we’re not in ze same age group!” with a little twinkle in his eye. 

He was everyone’s favorite runner. So Bryce and I and our crew plus a few other people all turned out for his finish. As we were waiting, his wife Susi regaled us with stories of how Hans didn’t even pick up running until he was 59-years old and his doctor said he should try it. He went from zero to 26.2 quickly, founding a marathon club in his hometown in Germany. It quickly turned into an obsession, and now Hans, his beautiful wife and their Mexican rescue dog split their time between their RVs in Germany and in the US, traveling around and running ultras. In fact, Hans holds the world record for the most 100s run at 134. He is 72-years old, started running his first mile at age 59, and holds the world record for most 100-milers run. That’s just mind-blowing. And on top of that, he’s just an awesome guy. (Oh yeah, and the guy just ran 70 miles of Hardrock two weeks ago, and was set to do Leadville in three.)

So when we saw him crest the hill and come into the finish, it was quite an honor just to be there. When he came in, he gave a wave and hug to just about everyone. Someone brought a chair for him, but he shooed them off, preferring to stand and talk with everyone. Hans is a pretty incredible guy, and I hope that one day I’m just 5% as awesome as him.

Also congrats to Jeremy Bradford who crushed the course record by almost three hours with a time of 20:33. Congrats also to Michael Carson with 21:34 and Bryce who got his goal of sub-24 with a 23:48 (thanks to a friendly push from me). And congrats to all 9 of us that finished. There were 22 that started so it’s another honor just to be in the 40% that finished. 

Full results here: Grand Mesa 100 

You know, there are three funny things I took away from the race:

1. A week and a half later, the whole thing still hasn’t fully dawned on me. I did such a good job not focusing on mileage and instead just going out for a run with friends that it still doesn’t feel like I ran 100 miles. Pretty strange. 

2. In some ways, the two days after the race were tougher. Your sleep patterns are thrown off, and you can only sleep 4-5 hours at a time before the leg pain wakes you up.

3. Hundred-milers are just more fun. There’s more of a community. You have pacers so you get to spend time running with friends. And damn, you just cover more ground so you see more, do more and remember more.

Finally, I want to thank Liza for being super understanding of my weird running habits 100% of the time and for staying up all night crewing for me. I also want to thank Matt and Brett who I roped into pacing me and, most importantly, just making it fun as hell. Another big thanks to Wendy who Matt roped into crewing for me. Also thank you to Kathleen at Performance Massage here in Boulder who got my muscles ready to run that far. 

Up next the Mogollon Monster? (Why stop at 100? Why not run 106?) Also, I think Matt, Bryce and I will run a Rim2Rim2Rim at the Grand Canyon in mid-October.

What a journey it’s been.