RACE REPORT // Second Place at the Zion 100 in 17:55

April 19, 2013

A few days before the Zion 100, Vanessa Runs wrote a blog post about why she runs 100s. Naturally this got me thinking about my own reason, and I settled on one thing: embracing the unknown. In a 100, nothing is a guarantee. Over 100 miles any number of things can go terribly wrong (or terribly right). You can prepare drop bags, but you will inevitably forget something. You can memorize aid stations and mileages and turns, but nothing can prepare you actually being there at mile whatever on the course. You can write a race plan with all your splits, but that’ll last to the first aid station if you’re lucky. Running a 100-miler, to me, is about embracing the unknown and riding it to see where it takes you. I run them being I’m curious about what adventure they’ll take me on. And my experience at the Zion 100 certainly took me into the unknown.

There was something more on the line for this race too: meat. Two months ago, I had posted something on Facebook about eating vegan. One of my Coyotes compatriot who was planning to run Zion and famed meat-eater, Marshall, replied with some snarky comments. In the ensuing volley vegan-vs-meat comment volley we arrived at a beat: I beat him at Zion, he goes meatless for a month. He wins, I eat bacon four times a week for a month. This lead to a lot of good-natured ribbing and shit-talking beforehand. Apparently he was going to have a bacon cheeseburger waiting at mile 98. If he were behind, he’d eat it. If he were ahead, he’d carry it to the finish line and have it waiting for me.

All this talk had me pretty hyped up for the race. And as I learned at the Ray Miller 50, it’s good for me to have an enemy to run against. This time it would be Team Veegs vs. Team Meat Bucket. 

Originally, my only goal was my first-ever sub-24. (I had picked Zion because it seemed like a speedy course.) But as we got closer to race day, I heard rumors of Marshall going out for a 21. I thought, There’s no way he’ll do that. But still, it scared me enough to cautiously add a best-case-scenario goal of 22 hours to my plan.

With my crew of vegans assembled, we made our way to Utah, ready to embrace the unknown. 

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The morning of the race, with everyone assembled, race director Matt Gunn made a quick speech. It had been less than a week since the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. He read off the names of all the dead and critically injured, along with their specific injuries. There was a pattern: Almost every single one had horrific leg damage. Matt had the idea to give hand out race batons, each one with the name of a different victim on it. We would carry them over the entire course and pass them off to other runners throughout the day. Matt would then send them to the victims, along with notes from us saying that we’d carried them 100 miles in their honor. He reminded us, “When you’re out there and thinking you can’t go on, just think of these people and what a gift it is to be out here and be able to run.” I grabbed a baton with the name William White on it. I didn’t know who he was, but I’d think about him often during the race. 

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It’s 4:30am and pacer Stewie sleeps while I get ready.

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RD Matt reading the names of the Boston victims.

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I ran for William White.

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Marshall’s (game?) face.

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The Coyotes: Marcus, Tiffany, Marshal, me and Jack. (Missing Schauman.)

Moments later, the 200 or so of us assembled at the starting line. And at 6:00am precisely, we were off. 

In the darkness, we flew. I like using those pre-dawn hours to make up as much mileage as I can since mentally it never feels like the race starts until the sun comes up. A pack of us cruised along the winding singletrack of the JEM Trail. It’s a lovely section that remains relatively flat, save for the canyons that drop off the sides. I bet it’s even more spectacular in daylight. As we ran on, we watched the sun slowly drag itself up and over the towering mesas in the distance across the desert.

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Course map, courtesy of Matt Gunn

We were going fast. Probably too fast. We hit the headlamp light drop at mile 5.6 in 45 minutes. Wow. We’re running 8-minute miles, I thought. But every time we hit a minor climb, my legs felt like lead. I thought about how undertrained and unprepared and unrested I felt for this race. I should’ve gotten more runs in. I should’ve gotten more sleep last week. I shouldn’t have done all those hill repeats with Dom a week ago. Damn you, Dom. It’s always the same feelings of doubt at the beginning of any race. I tried to quiet myself down and focus at just moving forward.

By the time we reached the first aid station at Virgin Dam (mile 10.6), I was feeling better. Our lead pack had thinned to just three: Anthony from Boston, me and Chris from Bozeman.

That’s when I saw it: Porta-potty! Wow! Yes!

I ducked in, did my thing quickly and took off again. In that short time, I had been hopped by a number of people, I just wasn’t how many. That uncertainty would persist for another 45 miles or so. 

 

One of the great things about the Zion course is that has a lot of fast, smooth, flat(ish), dirt roads, punctuated by five big climbs up to the top of mesas. The climbs are pretty burly. But because they’re mesa, they’re very steep and very short. And we were headed towards the first one, the Goosebump. 

My very favorite line in Matt’s course description was, “It’s hard to overstate the steepness of this climb.” We’d go up 1,200 in about 3/4 of a mile. It’s one thing to hear this; it’s another to climb it. It was impressively steep. Certainly one of the steepest things I’ve ever raced. So steep in fact, that no one was really at an advantage or disadvantage. You just had to get up the darn thing. But it was also remarkably short so before I knew it, it was over, and I could get back to the business of running.

At the top sat the Goosebump Aid Station (mile 19.1). I scanned the crowd for my crew. Nowhere. I looked down at my watch. It was 8:50. I was 1:10 ahead of my schedule. I guess that’s my fault. No biggie, I figured. I was feeling good and moving great. (I did the same thing at Grand Mesa last year.) I shrugged, grabbed an orange and shot off towards Gooseberry Point. 

This section was brutal. The singletrack skirting the end of the mesa quickly turned into gnarly, twisted slickrock. The best way to describe it is this: Imagine that someone poured concrete over the top of the mesa and then right before it dried, they took a giant hammer and struck the underside over and over again. You get the thrashing of running on pavement coupled with the increased chance to twist your ankle with every step. You’re running over these bulbous rock formations, following mountain bikers’ white dots. It’s an extreme mountain biking course that you’re now running. But as tough as it is, it’s also incredibly fun. I was lucky to have had a little experience on the stuff thanks to the Slickrock 50 two years ago so I think it was less of a shock for me than it was for other runners. 

Another four miles took us out to the Gooserberry Point aid station, with a half-mile out and back to the very point itself. Standing out on the exposed point across a narrow rock bridge was an old man with a Sharpie. There were a 1,500-foot drop-offs in every direction. The whole thing was pretty surreal. He took my hand and drew a “7” on it. Does this mean I’m in 7th place? I thought I had only counted two guys in front of me on the out-and-back. Oh well. I thanked him and sped off. 

We were now skimming the south rim of the mesa, rolling over the same nasty, fun slickrock as before. I hammered what I could, but my legs were taking a beating. Had I gone out too fast? If my legs were feeling toast at mile 27, how could I expect to last another 73? My brain was feeling toasted, too. Following those white dots, paying attention to every step in the hopes of not falling and snapping a leg/breaking all your teeth/shattering your skull is extremely mentally taxing. I was ready to get done with these 12 miles. 

Looping back to the Goosebump Aid Station at mile 31, I finally saw my crew. Matt and Derick loaded me up with water and a few new gels, then slapped my butt and sent me out across the mesa alone. 

I don’t love long, boring, flat roads. (Who does?) They are always my lowest points of any race. There’s nothing to keep your brain stimulated or to fight against. You just have to gut out mile after torturous mile. And just like clockwork, I hit a little lull on those 6 miles out to Grafton Mesa. Luckily, my lows aren’t all that low, but it was still a little unpleasant. After Gooseberry, my legs had lost their spring. There had been two guys I was racing to stay in front of on that section. Now they chased me down and left me in their dust. Oh well, I thought, I’d still be happy with top 5 or something. 

I looked down at the blue aluminum baton in my hand. I thought about William White in a hospital bed somewhere in Boston. I thought about all the incredible pain and heartbreak he and his family must be feeling. I squeezed the baton tighter, and suddenly my own pain seemed to melt away. 

 

The Grafton Aid Station at mile 37 was a quick stop. I grabbed food and sped off down the road, looking forward to seeing my crew in a couple of short miles. The dirt road was now sloping quickly and turning into a mean, pockmarked drop. I just prayed that we wouldn’t be climbing back up this later.

At the bottom I found the Smithsonian Butte Water Station and my crew at mile 41. Stewie (Stewart aka Matt aka Matthew aka Stewball aka Dr. Little Biscuits) hopped in to run me up to the Eagles Crag aid station. We had a couple miles of pavement before the climb.

At this point, my stomach was really feeling the stress of the miles. I had been religiously taking my salt tabs (every 45 minutes) and eating gels/blocks/bars/whatever (every 30). But now I had to force myself to get something more substantial in, and my stomach was not happy about it. At the top of the out-and-back, Matt had me cram a bean burrito and some Gatorade down my throat. It didn’t feel good, but I knew my body would thank me later. 

The out-and-back also afforded us the chance to get the lay of the competitive land. In front of us, we saw the Frenchman Pierre and the two other guys I had tried to stay ahead of on Gooseberry. So maybe 4th place? And by only a half mile or so. On the way down, we passed a few folks who were more than a mile behind me, but they were looking pretty ragged.

Stewie and I  blew past Smithsonian for the section time and raced out across the asphalt, toward the old ghost town of Grafton.

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A very rare picture of me running roads.

At the edge of town, we came across the small cemetery dotted with two dozen old headstones. I wondered to myself who these people were and why they chose this place, so remote, as their final resting place. They had marked this land as theirs

But soon there was no thinking, just climbing. We started our 1,000-foot ascent back up to Grafton Mesa via the old wagon trail. How wagons ever climbed it, I have no idea. It was really rugged, and I think I finally broke a sweat. (The temperatures had be perfect all day, hovering in the mid to high 60s but were starting to rise. Still, it was nothing like last year’s 90+ temps.) It was also here that we hit the halfway point of the race. I realized I had just run my 50-mile PR, in about 7:50. Hmm. Maybe I am going pretty fast.

imageSweating the climb up to Grafton Mesa.

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A Stewie selfie.

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Sick views from the top of Grafton.

We topped out on the mesa and found ourselves plopped onto some really pleasant, twisting singletrack. I wish I felt better so I could’ve enjoyed this section more. This was probably the lowest/slowest I felt all day. I stopped to walk a few times to eat and drink. My water ran out here too. At one point, another runner blew past me. Luckily I caught his bib number and saw that he was running the 100K. But it was still mildly disheartening. I was looking mighty forward to getting to that next aid station. 

After what felt like forever, we got there. I scarfed some potatoes, PB&Js and pickles. We were in and out and on our way, heading back to the Goosebump Aid Station for my third visit of the day. Six more miles of dirt roads. By now my right Achilles tendon was feeling a little tight, but I didn’t think much of it. 

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Dirty roads, speedy splits.

Six miles later, we rolled into Goosebump (mile 58.3) and came across Fuerst and Chamoun who were crewing and pacing Marshall. Sounded like he was doing OK, but was back quite a ways. Barring anything crazy happening, victory would be mine. I also asked about the runners in front of me. There was a little confusion among the aid station volunteers. No one quite knew what place I was in—somewhere between 4th and 2nd—but there was some good news. The two dudes who I’d been trying to keep up with were actually 100Kers. No wonder they had been going so fast.

Stewie and I shot down the Goosebump feeling more excited than ever. To rephrase one of Matt Gunn’s course descriptions, “It’s hard to overstate the steepness of this descent.” We were essentially falling down the side of a mesa in a marginally controlled state. But, just like that, it was over, and we were again racing across the desert and back towards Virgin. 

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Getting bumped on the ‘Bump.

Two miles later we were at Dalton Wash Water Station (mile 61.8) where Derick was waiting to pick me up for the next 21 miles. Even better, he confirmed that yes indeed, I was in second place. Suh-weet. I chugged some Vega Recovery plus a tall boy of coconut water, switched out some food, grabbed my headlamp, and we were off. 

Once again we found ourselves on a long dirt road up to the top of Guacamole. It was mostly runnable, but I was certainly happy for the sections that necessitated walking. I was pretty beat. 

But we quickly hit the aid station where we learned three things: 1) Pierre had been through 30 minutes ago; 2) The loop was supposedly mighty brutal; 3) There was no guacamole at the actual Guacamole Aid Station. I was probably most disappointed by the lack of guacamole, followed closely by the fact that Pierre was so far ahead.

Guacamole is similar to Gooseberry. It’s mostly covered in slickrock. And once again, we were wayfinding across gnarled, twisted rock that was pounding our feet. The difference is that Guacamole is covered with a forest of skeleton trees, left from a fire years ago.

We felt incredibly lucky to be doing the loop in daylight. I can’t imagine how hellacious this section must have been for everyone else at night. We heard the horror stories after the race. In the fading afternoon light we moved as quickly as we possible could. About three miles from the end, the trail was mercifully gave us some gorgeously soft singletrack. Thank you. 

We cruised by into the aid station (mile 76.5 now) to some good news and some bad news. Good news: We made up 10 minutes on Pierre on the loop. He was now just 20 minutes ahead. Bad news: The guy behind us had arrived at the aid station just 10 minutes after we did. There was still nearly a marathon left in this race. Still plenty of time for something to happen. 

We took off down the hill with a renewed sense of urgency. (It was  more my paranoia about getting caught than trying to run down first place.) The hill turned fairly steep for a bit so I opened up. Derick yelled after me to save my legs. But I run downhills pretty well, and I don’t think most people use them as well as they could. I always see them as a chance to make up some speed. So, off I shot. On the way back to Dalton Wash I saw three Coyotes in a row—Marshall, Schauman and Neil. We exchanged high-fives and “nice jobs” as Derick and I barreled down the hill. 

At Dalton Wash, something happened. I went crazy.

I don’t know if it was the fact that we suddenly had some fun singletrack/cross-country in front of us. Or maybe it was the fact that the sun had just set. Or maybe it was the fact that we decided to roll through Dalton and push on to Walsh Aid Station 3 miles away instead. Or maybe it was just the fact I was scared of getting caught. Whatever the reasons, I just shot off. Fast. Derick had just said, “Let’s have you take a break and walk this hill” when I shouted back, “Naw, it looks kinda runnable!” and took off and gunned it all the way to Walsh (and left poor Derick behind).

I think I was just suddenly having fun again. I was excited to get back on a trail. And I always get a huge second wind after the sun sets.

The sky was getting darker and darker, but I care to take out my headlamp. It was more fun to run in twilight. I turned it into a game. Could I make it to Walsh before it was 100% pitch black? It just made me run faster. 

I crossed the creek and came flying into Walsh. Much to my surprise,  Pierre standing right there. He looked up at me, shocked, grabbed a little more food and shot off into the night.

Holy crap. I made up 15 minutes on him. And I had come into the aid station so fast that I had dropped my pacer by about 6 minutes and my new one wasn’t even ready to go. He was still in street clothes.

 

But I smelled blood. Pierre scampered off while we rushed around getting my night gear ready and refilling my pack. I eyed the entire table of whiskey that the Walshes had set out and thought, I’ll see you later.

Stew and I took off across the desert once again. The monolith of Smith Mesa loomed in the distance against the dark sky. I must have scared Pierre pretty well because he was long gone. We could see his headlamp at the base of the mesa and climbing fast. 

Then we hit the Flying Monkey Trail. “Trail” is sort of a loose term. It’s more like a directed scramble up the side of the mesa. Loose rock, huge drop-offs, climbing sections. It is one mean hunk of trail. I couldn’t believe how gnarly it was. At one point, there’s a huge, impassable rock face. I took several swings at finding footholds and pulling myself up, but each time I slid back further towards the ledge behind me. Stewie saw this and yelled at me to just take his hand, and he helped pull me up. I have no idea how people did that without pacers.

About halfway up, we looked down and saw a stream of lights racing across the desert toward us. We counted five, three runners and two pacers. They were only about 20 minutes back, and that still felt too close for comfort.

After more shenanigans on Flying Monkey, the trail proper disappeared and we had to basically bushwhack our way to the top of the mesa. Every time you looked up, you’d see another LED marker in the distance (or worse, a whole string of them). It didn’t seem to end. But finally, we were dumped out onto a dirt road. It felt like an enternity, but I think we made it from Walsh to here in about 45 minutes, which I was pleased with.

We turned our headlamps off and ran the rest of the uphill to the Smith Mesa Aid Station (mile 89.5) in the dark. It was both to not give away our position to our pursuers, and because, well, it was just nice to be running in the dark.

We snatched some potatoes and Mountain Dew at Smith and ran through. This was our final short out-and-back section. We’d get a good look at where we stood. Three-quarters of a mile later, we saw Pierre running towards us. We exchanged “awesome jobs” and flew off into the darkness in the opposite directions. Just then, we saw a sign that said “.5 miles to the turnaround.” Pierre was only a mile ahead of us. Sweet.

We hit the turnaround, which was a sign with a Sharpie attached to it. You had to mark your had to prove you made it. I was about to draw a dot when Stewie grabbed my hand and started to draw something elaborate on my hand. “Dude. Stop. We’ve got to go,” I shouted at him. He pulled the marker away, crackling. I looked down to see a big, blue penis on my hand.

Dick.

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A Matt Stewart original.

On the way back to the aid station, we passed the third-place guy, Matt Cecill who was just leaving. We figured that gave us about a twenty-minute lead. Still, not super comforting.

At this point, I knew we’d never catch Pierre. He was about 10-12 minutes ahead and was running to keep a win. But as usual, my paranoia had me scared of getting caught by someone who was twice as far behind me.

I started thinking about my finishing time too. While leaving Walsh I thought, Man, a sub-22 would be really good. Slowly that had turned into, Dude, sub-21 would be totally crazy. On the road up to Smith Mesa, Stewie and I talked about how a sub-20 would be so fricking cool. Now we were talking about how a sub-19. I still couldn’t believe it.

That’s when we saw the sign: “5.2 miles to the finish.”

Five point two frickin’ miles. We started hooting and hollering. Then I looked down at my watch. It said “11:17.” I did a quick calculation.

“I think I might regret saying this,” I started. “If we start cranking, like, really, really running right now I think we can make it in under 18 hours. 

“Yeah, dude. That’d be crazy.”

“Yeah, it would be.”

“Well, if you want to do it, I can run you in.” 

“Uhhh… Yeah. I mean, if I don’t try I’ll hate myself even more, right?”

"Right."

“OK. Let’s do it.” 

“OK.” 

And then we started to run the fastest I’ve ever run in my life.

I’m sure I’ve physically run faster than that before. But certainly not 95 miles into a race. We hit 2.5 miles of steeply descending, unmaintained pavement and began something more akin to falling forward really, really fast. The asphalt was cracked and crumbling, and we were totally out of control. I was terrified. One little catch on an upturned shard of road, and I would likely need reconstructive surgery from the forehead down.

I carefully glanced down at my watch. It said, “6:21 min/mile.” What? We’re running 6:20s? And 95 miles into a race? This is insane.

Every 10 seconds or so I’d make this awful retching noise. I’ve never puked from running before, but it certainly seemed eminent. This is was the hardest I have ever run.

But we were going to make it in before midnight, dammit.

We made it to the final water station at mile 98. I looked down at my watch. “11:39.” We had 21 minutes.

We turned off the road and onto sandy ATV trails, careening down steeper drops than were suddenly even more unpredictable. The LED markers seemed to stretch off into the distance forever. I was getting nervous. Maybe we won’t make it. Where is the damn highway? Then we started to hit a few rollers. What? Hills? Now? We sprinted up them, but each one sucked away some of my precious time. Where is the road? Why are we not there yet? These two miles were torture, both physically and mentally.

Finally, it seemed like we were close. We could hear the highway and a car whiz past. Then, cattle gate. Pavement. A highway. A neighborhood block. I remember this from this morning. We’re here. 

I wish I could’ve been outside my body to see the look on my face as I hammered down those final three blocks to the finish. It must’ve had the biggest, craziest, most twisted grin plastered across it. 

There it was. The finish. I sprinted towards the huge red digital clock.

“17:55:12.”

In my first-ever recorded fist-pump incident, I threw a huge fist into the air. I felt like I’d just won all the Olympics.

“Dude! The first place guy just came in 3 minutes ago! You were 3 minutes from first place,” Derick shouted at me.

In all my madness to try to sneak in under 18 hours, I had made up almost 10 minutes on Pierre by accident.

People asked me afterwards if I was mad that I got beat by just 3 minutes. Hell no. I had an awesome race. I spent the next day, replaying everything, trying to find 3 minutes I could’ve gotten back somewhere. And honestly I can’t find them. Maybe I could’ve gutted out a little more speed after the Grafton Mesa climb, and maybe we could’ve gotten out of the Dalton Wash Water Station a half a minute or a minute faster, but really, I squeezed every second out of that race. I left absolutely everything out on that course.

And because of it, I smashed my PR time by 7:21. I also managed to beat last year’s course record by 30 minutes (which was also set on an easier course, albeit a much hotter one too). And I widen my lead on third place to 47 minutes. (Matt Cecill had a pretty crazy story himself. He was feeling terrible going into Guacamole as 9th, drank a Starbucks Espresso Doubleshot and somehow he came alive and clawed his way up to 3rd.)

Lastly, I got to hand Matt Gunn the baton that I had been carrying all 100 miles. Later that night when I got home to my hotel room, I looked up William White, the man whose name was on my baton. It was a true honor.

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Team Veegs: Stewie, me and Derick.

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Literal Victory beers (and Derick’s red wine).

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My custom-made belt buckle, made from flowers picked along the course.

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Life-giving vegan broth at the finish.

We hung around the finish line for a while and watched other finishers roll in. People were coming in within minutes of each other. This thing was a legit race race

We heard that the other Coyotes would hit Walsh soon. We also remembered that Walsh had an awesome bonfire and table full of whiskey. So, we hopped into my Jeep and zoomed over there. If you haven’t met GW and Melissa Walsh yet, you’re doing it wrong. They were hilarious and gracious and kind to us all night, offering up drinks and food and laughs. In return, we taught them about picklebacks. (Super convenient at ultramarathons wjen you have giant jars of pickles at every aid station.) We ended up staying there until 4:30 or 5 in the morning, drinking, cheering on the runners still coming in and hanging out with old friends and new ones alike. Quite a way to celebrate my first sub-18 100-miler.

Zion gave me everything I’d been hoping for and way, way more. I’ve heard people say that they thought it was a really grueling course. Personally, I didn’t find it all that bad. There are three basic parts to deal with: a fair amount of fast dirt roads, five steep but short climbs and the fun but nasty slickrock on Gooseberry and Guacamole. The singletrack sections are all exceedingly pleasant. That combo leads to a fast and relatively easy course. I think it’s perfect if you’re looking to run a fast 100 or one of your first 100s.

Matt Gunn has put together one phenomenal race. Everything was executed nearly flawlessly. The aid stations were well stocked and staffed by wonderful folks. The course markings were the best I’ve ever seen, and those crazy solar LEDs + reflective tape + pink plastic night markings were brilliant. And the whole weekend is one continuous event so you can enjoy Zion for several days. You get sense all the passion and sweat Matt’s poured into this thing.

So I want to say thank you to Matt Gunn, first and foremost. Also, thank you to Stewie and Derick who did an amazing job crewing and pacing me. I couldn’t have asked for better help on Team Veegs. Thanks to Pierre for being my rabbit. (Someone told me this that you set the course record at last year’s Ozark 100, so double congrats.) Thanks to all the Coyotes for a) just being awesome and b) supporting me along the way. And of course, thanks to Marshall for making the bet with me. I’ve got plenty more kale, quinoa and seaweed at my place if you’re running low.

Full race results here.

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Second-place, custom-made trophy.

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I was considering amputating my right foot and replacing it with my new metal foot.

Epilogue

The next morning, I looked down and saw a massive, raised, red bump running the length of my right Achilles. And the ankle itself was swollen to the thickness of a whiffle ball bat. It hurt like hell. I guess that’s why it felt tight during the race. I also had a little pinpoint of a pain on the inside of my left knee, but that didn’t worry me as much as the tendinitis.

On the way home, I sat in the back seat of my Jeep soaking that sucker in Epsom salt. And I did so while looking over the course map for the Bryce Canyon 100 in a month. (I might have a problem.)

At work on Monday I was on crutches. It’s getting better, and I’m doing a lot of hot/cold therapy on it plus massages. I haven’t been running at all, which has left me a little antsy. But the most important thing is getting healthy first.

As much as it sucks to have an injury like this, I’m sort of glad that I just had an acute injury. Everything else felt great. My legs totally felt fresh the day after the race. So that gives confidence for the big year ahead.

Bring on Bryce.

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Back-seat Epsom salt soaking on the way home from a 100-miler…

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…while studying for the next one.