Ninety-seven runners fanned out across Ranger Station Road. It was 2:57 am, the stars were bright and the August air was crisp and dusty. Whether because of fear of waking up the neighbors, nervous bellies or both, everyone toeing the line at the inaugural Ute 100 was quiet. The only sound came from a few hushed conversations and the crunch of gravel road beneath running shoes. For a moment, as the clock struck 3, we all turned off our headlamps, looked at the sky and just soaked in the present.
As my light clicked off, I thought about why I was standing there, chilled and sleepy on that rural Utah road, in the middle of the night, about to embark on one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. The answer I came up with wasn’t what I expected. I was there because this was an adventure, but also because I could be. Because I have the luxury to choose to take on this challenge that lay ahead of me. No one in that small crowd was embarking on this test of human limits out of a fear for their lives or because they had to. We were there simply because we wanted to be and we could make that choice and that in and of itself made this endeavor worth it.
There’s something else about ultra running, too. It stirs the deepest feelings inside me and aside from falling in love with Evan, I don’t think there’s much else that compares. I’ve experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows running (or nauseously hiking) on trails. And the lessons my body has taught me as it struggles over the edge of its comfort are lessons I’m not sure I could learn anywhere else. I won’t deny that of course, I love to compete as well, but even if I were the last person to cross the finish line, I would still indescribably love this crazy thing that I do.
As headlamps re-illuminated the road and the race director, Sean Blanton, waved us over the starting line, that deep well of emotion and nerves that had been simmering for days bubbled to the surface. A little embarrassed, but grateful for the cover of darkness, I held back tears and started running. This journey I had so nervously and excitedly anticipated had begun.
The first 14 miles of the course involves a little over four thousand feet of climbing. The entire race has a total of just under 20 thousand feet of climbing and the same of descent. If there’s anything I learned from my first hundred miler in 2015, it’s that fried quads will–for sure–ruin your day. Compounding that concern was the fact that when full of the race’s extensive list of mandatory gear, my Nathan running pack weighed close to ten pounds. I was nervous about how that added weight might impact the legs, too. So, I brought collapsible carbon-fiber trekking poles, which I’ve never run with before, to preserve my leg muscles as long as possible. I ended up carrying them the entire race and used them for every steep climb and descent, balancing them in my palm on the flatter sections.
After a three and half hour climb in the dark, following rainbow LEDs and reflective flagging up the mountain, I got to the Medicine Lakes Aid Station, mile 14.2. The sun was just coming up and the pinkish orange glow illuminated the scree fields above Medicine Lake. I arrived in time to see the number one lady, Joanna Ford, on her way out of the aid station. We high-fived. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry though, there were a lot of miles to go and I wasn’t about to repeat the mistake of going out too fast and suffering with a sour stomach for fifty miles. I just told myself to run my own race, the leaders would come back, or they wouldn’t and if not, good for them. So I refilled two soft flasks with Gatorade, ate a half of a Rice Krispy treat, drank a little cup of Coca Cola, thanked the awesome aid station volunteers and hit the trail again.
I wasn’t half a mile from the aid station when my Nathan soft flask (that already leaks if you don’t get the lid on just so) blew a glued seam and the straw that’s usually a secured part of the lid came flying out, squirting me in the eyeball with orange Gatorade. I worried for a second about whether or not I had anything that would serve as a backup once I got to my crew in 4 to 5 hours—I did, thank goodness. But I’d already had another Nathan hydration mishap earlier that morning when my bladder hose—which I didn’t even know detached—came off somewhere in the huge meadow at the start where people were parking. Thankfully someone found it and brought it to the check-in table (whoever you are, BLESS YOU!). Seriously though, that’s three strikes, Nathan!
I suspect it was the early morning start combined with the more open and sun exposed meadows on the next 2,300 foot climb to Aid Station 2, but my stomach started to churn and eating became a chore earlier than I’d hoped. I tried not to worry about it and just made a deal with myself that if I could get a hundred calories in every hour, but no longer than the occasional hour and a half, I’d be okay. So I ate strawberry Pop Tarts in quarters because there’s something about returning to your six-year old garbage-food eating habits that makes eating while nauseated a little easier.
By Aid Station 2, another woman had passed me and I was in third place, but I tried not to think about it because I’d already decided that the goal of the first half was nothing more than to keep the wheels on. If I started to feel nauseated, I slowed down. And more than once, like a scolding mother, I told myself out loud to “just cool your jets.”
From Aid Station 2 to Geyser Pass at mile 32, where I could pick up Evan to keep me company up and over the high-point of Mann’s Peak (12,272 ft), it was a short climb and then a long descent on a graveled dirt road. It was so tempting to cruise this section, but I held myself back. I hiked the uphill at a concerted pace and ran the downhill in what I would normally describe as a “baby jog” using the poles. There was a road similar to this in the Pine to Palm 100, I cruised it, and I paid for it later. “Patience is a weapon,” Evan had reminded me that morning on the dark, thirty minute drive to the start. I held on to that wisdom when my ego told me I was going too slow.
I finally arrived at Geyser Pass sometime around eleven a.m., an hour later than I’d estimated. I met Evan, my parents and my champ of a step-son, Jack. He’s 11 and this was his first time crewing a hundred miler. He totally embraced the role and I think it helped when he was allowed to have the other half of the Coke I opened, but couldn’t finish before leaving. Also, what kid doesn’t want an excuse to dump ice water on their parent’s head? Once I’d sat down for a few minutes and drank some coconut water, my stomach felt immediately better. So Evan and I headed up the climb to Mann’s Peak with just a quick stop at the actual (non-crew accessible) aid station a few miles along for a quarter of a grilled cheese and ice in the hat.
The climb to Mann’s Peak is GOREGEOUS. And once we were in the alpine, it was disorienting to look down at the Behind the Rocks Wilderness (where we got engaged!) in the distance and remember that we were still in canyon country. We made a quick stop about halfway up to slather some Squirrel’s Nut Butter on the back of my heels. Better to avoid a blister than deal with one, I always say! We made it to the top in relatively good time. From there it was a steep descent on scree and then slippery, steep trail before running out the valley below along Mill Creek and finally to Warner Lake Campground and the Hazzard County Aid Station (mile 43).
At Hazzard County, I got to pick up my second pacer (given a “unicorn” bib in this race! Which I’m obviously a fan of), my good friend and fellow lady trail slayer, Sally Henkel. If you don’t know Sally, you’re going to want to correct that because you, my friend, are missing out. Sally is best known for her wit, humor and reputation for taking exactly zero shit from anyone. For the record, when I post about this race or anything for that matter with clever hashtags, you can pretty much bet those were all Sally’s inventions. For example, my crew being called the #pukeydukeypacercrew (I probably shouldn’t explain), or when ultrarunning is like being pregnant (neither of us would actually know) because you might like to eat a Snickers and a pickle together and ask for a #snickle. Sally’s job was to get me through the hottest 14 miles of the race. By this point it was a little after noon and the next section of the course descended onto the Jimmy Keen loop. While this section is still between 7500 and 8000 feet in elevation, the trail winds through nothing but baking, open oak scrub. So unless you have a comedian like Sal Gal with you and a shit-ton of ice packed into every upward facing crevice of your clothing and body, you may find yourself deep, and I do mean deep in the pain cave and hating your life.
With Sally’s running comedy and Otter Pops in the cooler at the water drop, we made it through this section (surprisingly) pretty painlessly. We just kept looking at the single thunderhead in the distance and imagining that it was cooling us off. Who says it’s not okay to lie to yourself sometimes? We also saw a freshy bear poop and bear tracks on the trail not long before we popped out onto the La Sal Loop road ahead of the Miner’s Aid #1. Oh boy! Furry friends!
The aid station volunteers at Miner’s (mile 57) were incredible and as soon as I arrived, one had an ice pack on my neck while Evan was changing my shoes and socks and re-gooifying the hot spots on my heels. The rest of my crew, Spencer and Cerissa (my parents had taken Jack back to the Airbnb to cool off and relax for a while) helped me fill my pack and I felt ready to go again pretty quickly. I hadn’t seen Joanna (who’d been in first all day) since Medicine Lake, but she was here, sitting in the air conditioning of a car and recovering from her over-heated trip around the Jimmy Keen loop.
Competition feels strange for me in ultras. I suspect it’s because no matter how prepared you are, a race this long can go south—maybe it’s your fault, but often it can be something totally out of your control—and when that happens, the internal agony of moving through it, or deciding not to, is horrendous. I mean, that’s not to say there aren’t cocky ultra runners out there–there are–but in my honest opinion, they’re fools. So seeing Joanna sitting in the car recovering from the heat was exciting–because I’d caught up to first place–but I was also very much thinking “girl…I FEEL YOU.”
I set out for the next hot, six mile loop back to Miner’s #2, mile 63, with my friend Cerissa, who is both a total badass and a total sweetheart. If you’re having a rough day, there’s probably no person better to have your back than her. She is so thoughtful and genuine that it’s no surprise that she’s damned good at this whole crewing and pacing thing. We finished the loop (which was half La Sal Loop Road pavement, but still gorgeous with Castleton Tower in the background) in time for the sun to be setting. We arrived at the Miner’s #2 Aid Station a little after 8pm, quicker than any of us expected, and Cerissa had to run up the hill to retrieve Sally, Spencer and Evan from their mullet cutting session. I ate some pizza and grilled cheese, drank some broth, speed changed into a dry sports bra and t-shirt, grabbed my mittens, arm warmers and head lamp and took to the trail again, this time with our friend Spencer Plumb.
Spencer is one of those guys that you can’t not like. He’s a genuinely good human. Evan and I love him so much that he officiated our wedding exactly two years ago to the day and not far from where we were just then climbing another 2,000 feet back toward Warner Lake. As we climbed, I remembered something Spencer had said during our wedding ceremony about Evan vowing to give me peanut butter pickles and gummy bears during races and chuckled a little bit at just how real that was.
As we climbed, darkness fully enveloped us again. We decided to take it easy on the climb up the Miner’s Basin Trail and just get to the top feeling good. The race was on at this point and better to be able to move at all than to get over zealous and find ourselves (okay, myself) hunkering down at an aid station. I was still feeling good stomach-wise, but I could tell this was a tenuous state of being. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from feeling great to feeling like death in a hundred miler, so I don’t take feeling “fine” for granted. At the top, I tried running down for all of fifteen seconds before deciding to keep that slower pace on the final descent to Warner Lake. I think it takes me a while to get used to the dark sometimes, too, and on top of not wanting to break my face tripping on the steep, dark descent, I wasn’t ready to fry the quads just yet either. We arrived at Warner Lake aid station (mile 70ish) a full 6 miles, 4,000 feet of elevation change, and a very long three hours later.
My parents and Jack were there waiting for us and I gladly took a seat on a log and wrapped my puffy coat around my shoulders while my mom put my warm hat on my head. At this point, it was something like 11:30 at night, I was exhausted, and food was again sounding like the last thing I wanted on Earth. As I winced and breathed through my exhaustion and gut discomfort, Jack told me he saw Joanna come through behind us and leave again. But in that moment, I didn’t care. Jack and my parents packed us food for the trail, restocked our fluids and we were off again.
Not far down the trail toward Trans La Sal, somewhere around midnight and 21 hours into the race, we found a cure to our slow pace and nausea when god damned Jurassic Park happened in the trees. Now, some people hallucinate in 100 milers and at least I think I’ve never experienced that myself, but something weird was going on because I heard freaking T-Rex in the darkness of the aspen forest to our right. Trying to sound a little more reasonable, I told Spencer it was either a werewolf or hunting dogs treeing a mountain lion. He was nice and let me run with that until suddenly there was rustling in the bushes next to us and more angry animal sounds and the only thing I could think to do was to hide behind the biggest tree in sight. I was mid-ninja dancing behind the perfect shield tree when Spencer finally yelled “AMBER! Let’s go! It’s just cows.” I sheepishly followed, but spent the rest of the race fully believing that at the very least, I had narrowly escaped being attacked by a herd of rabid cows. It wasn’t until I had a nap the next day that I realized how completely I’d misplaced my marbles in that moment. Bless his heart, Spencer never said a word. After that little adrenaline rush, though, I was good to go energy-wise and we ran most of the way to Trans La Sal, mile 74.2.
I arrived at the aid station at 1:22am to Evan, Cerissa and Sally’s smiling faces. Evan though, made no bones about me getting out of the aid station at the same time as, if not before Joanna, who had arrived ahead of us. But the rest of my crew was giving me a leg and shoulder massage and I was enjoying the hell out of it while also trying to choke down more broth and I really didn’t want to get up and keep moving. Thankfully, Cerissa was ready to go for the next section and with Evan’s help, they pushed me out of my chair and back onto the trail for another 8 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing to the final aid station, La Sal Pass, mile 82. There I’d pick up Evan for the final 16 mile run to the finish.
These 8 miles were definitely the hardest of the race for me and Cerissa is a SAINT for pacing me through it. I was tired, nauseous and delirious and it took me 3 and a half hours to make it the full distance. Joanna had started this section with us and we had the pleasure of visiting with her for maybe the first half of it. But ultimately, I was feeling SO terrible and moving more and more slowly that she decided to move on alone. I stopped several times along the way to dry heave and respond to Cerissa’s conversation-making with unintelligible groans. She was so upbeat and cheery the whole time, despite the fact that it was three in the morning and she had to be about as exhausted as I was. After crossing a few, what felt like high points, and several false alarms, we finally made it to the La Sal Pass aid station at 4:50 am where Evan was waiting. Joanna was sitting at the aid station and a third woman had caught up to me and arrived at the same time.
There wasn’t much I needed to refill here food or fluid wise, so it was a matter of sipping on some broth for a second, realizing I couldn’t do it and then Evan saying “we need to get out of here. Now.” His urgency stemmed from the fact that Joanna and the third woman, Lee, had just left the aid station and I was now in third place with 16 miles to go and my butt was still planted in a camp chair. I said something whiny and totally unconvincing like “whatever, I’ll leave if you want me to, but I’m just going to throw up the whole time.” I got up despite my petulant mini tantrum and we left the aid station as the first hints of dawn started to add color to the sky. We made it, oh…20 steps before I stopped and barfed on the side of the trail. Thankfully though, unlike in Pine to Palm, I immediately felt better, so we started running and we didn’t stop.
The first few miles out of the last aid station are a gradual, swooping downhill where we passed both ladies and a group of men and headed for the base of the final, steep climb up the South Mountain Trail. It’s 1,600 feet. Straight. Up. We hit the climb and I tried not to think about the people right behind me. I hate being hunted late in a race. I’d gone the whole race up to now pushing worries about place out of my mind. I’d run my own race, it was paying off, and I was winning, but now was the time to pour the rest of the fuel in the tank. I really didn’t want to lose it.
So, for lack of a better descriptor, I climbed my freaking face off.
All the while, Evan reminded me not to look over my shoulder and to give it my most honest effort. The sun rose red behind us through the smoky horizon as we climbed and when we reached the top, I took just a second to soak it all in. I couldn’t see anyone behind us, but I thought I could hear people coming so we headed for the final 3,000-foot descent on Pole Canyon Trail as fast as we could (though Evan would tell you it could have been faster). At this point, the course rejoins where it started and I recognized where we were even though last time had been in the dark. I pushed through the discomfort in my stomach and legs. Almost. There.
Once we got to Pole Canyon road, it was roughly 5 ½ miles to the finish line on dirt and gravel roads. It felt like the end of a long tempo run and I was so thankful for that. It was the end of a hundred miler and here I was, running and doing so at more than a hobble! Maybe that’s pocket change to some runners, but not to me. I packed away the poles, Evan kept urging just one more Scratch gummy or Gin Gin in the cheek to keep the stomach in check and we were cruising. By the time we reached the main road, I was feeling good enough that even if we’d seen someone coming up behind us, I felt like I could put the hammer down. The last four miles of dirt road felt longer than I remembered, it was after 8am and it was getting hot. I was so glad not to be doing this any later. When we made that final dusty turn into the finish line and saw the clock and the RD with his hand up ready for a high five, I don’t think you could’ve wiped the smile off my face with anything.
I finished first woman and 15th overall in 29:35. I absolutely couldn’t have done that without the help of my crew and pacers and I’m not just saying that. Their humor, upbeat attitudes, encouragement, persistence and sanity when I’d lost my own kept me in the race and from crawling it in much later than I did. I’m so glad I got to meet Joanna and to share some miles with her, she seems super rad. She kept me honest and ran a hell of a race. Thanks to Sean “Run Bum” Blanton for putting on an excellent inaugural Ute 100! He promised it would be well organized, and it was. He also promised the course wasn’t meant to be hard…that part, I’m not so sure about 😉 Now I just have to decide whether or not to come back next year to defend that title! (Too soon! It’s too soon.)
Thanks to everyone who cheered me on in person and from afar. I really did feel those positive vibes and they helped me along without a doubt. I’ve said this before, but so much of ultra running—and especially 100 milers—for me is mental. You can train and you can stay healthy, but if your head isn’t in a positive place, it’s not going to happen. My friends and family helped me keep that positive mindset and I’m so grateful and ready to return the favor for any of their next big races.
If you’re still reading this: really!? You’re still here? I owe you an endurance reading medal. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.