Lily only cared about the pine cone. It didn’t matter who I was, or why I was in her yard, only that when she returned the slimy thing to my feet, I would promptly heave it in another direction. Her frenetic enthusiasm, single-mindedness, and determination set forth a model that I would attempt to emulate in my pursuit of the IMTUF 100 finish line. When I tried to make it more complicated than that, instill a broader sense of purpose to the task, I remembered Lily and her willingness to let that game go on forever without ever asking, “Why?”

It was a pleasant drive. I’m not a frequent automobile driver, so the opportunity to slip into the blankness that envelops that forward-facing tunnel was welcomed. Prior to the anti-car zealotry of my late twenties, I enjoyed going for long drives, the fascinating nothingness mimicking the allure of a front loading dryer. What did Don Delillo say about that? Something.

The days spent with Lily were dreary, but comfortable. I mostly stayed inside and rested, letting the sound of the persistent rain become the new noise that ordered my thoughts. Between sleeping, napping, and contented sitting, I emerged Friday morning as if I was a newly minted human machine, ready to experience the novel sensation of first movement. Somewhere up above, the peaks were snow-covered and waiting.

Payette Lake
Passing Payette Lake on the way to Burgdorf

I arrived at Burgdorf Hot Springs on Friday afternoon, set up my tent, and waited for the pre-race briefing to begin. It was odd camping at the starting line, especially in a remote place that elicited both sensory overload and deprivation. Despite being enamored with the natural beauty of the place, anxiety manifested at being severed from familiarity. This would mark the first attempt to do a long race without crew or pacers. The people around me were best described by one of my peers as hard motherfuckers, chatting amongst themselves about two hundred milers, Hardrock, and other amazing feats that made me feel out of place.

I went for a walk.

Payette Lake
Payette Lake
The race briefing
The race briefing

Burgdorf provided the perfect setting for a mountain running race

The briefing was short and to the point. Jeremy went through the course with infectious passion, while Brandi covered the more mundane, but equally relevant race logistics. They worked well together, and I could feel my spirits lifting as their combined enthusiasm, confidence, and trust began to inspire me. This was a different vibe, and one that I happily embraced. While the organization that runs Fat Dog certainly puts on a flawless series of races, the vibe wasn’t the same. Perhaps it’s the necessary consequence of having a race that’s seven times as large. There was a well orchestrated adventure waiting for us, but it wouldn’t be sanitized.

If you see a wolf…you’re really lucky

I moved my tent into an open area and fell asleep in a sea of newborn stars, nestled comfortably in my -20F sleeping bag.

The ease of waking up at the starting line provided comfort that almost tricked me into missing the start. My lackadaisical pace making breakfast and unwillingness to shed my snow pants and down jackets had me scrambling back to my tent minutes before the grand depart. No worries. On this occasion, it wasn’t about seconds, but instead stripping an adventure and an individual to their essence. I tend to make these things complicated affairs, and in doing so, lose the clarity of mind that yields a worthwhile experience.

We were soon sprinting down the gravel road. It almost felt like cheating, banking miles on easy trail before sunrise. The first day of a hundred miler always feels like a race against the sun. How far will I be by the time it gets dark again?

Sunrise, day one
Shortly after sunrise on the first day

After leaving the Willow Basket aid station, I ran with Matt from Seattle. We’d bump into each other a few times through the race. He was a steady, calm source of positivity and inspiration, and I’m grateful that we were able to share those miles. The conversation was a treat after several days of solitude.

Trail conditions became somewhat more challenging, but remained very runnable. The sun had inched its way above the adjacent peaks, so I stopped to remove enough clothing to constitute daytime gear. One of the many challenges of running without a crew was selecting clothing that would strike a balance between daytime and nighttime comfort. Since my drop bags were limited in size, I invested the space in adequate food and cold weather gear. During the day I suffered in 3/4 tights and a long sleeve shirt.

We reached the Victor aid station, where a group of three awesome people had hiked in enough supplies to get us up and over the peak. I refilled my water and was on my way up. The trail got increasingly steep and technical, with the recent snowfall providing an uncanny and picturesque backdrop. I was in awe. Unfortunately, I couldn’t overcome the fogginess on my phone, so no photos, but just trust that it was unreal.

The descent was steep and technical, one of the many times during the race when I’d realize that my skills weren’t up to the task. The fluidity and speed that I’ve honed on shallower, less technical terrain was notably absent. I stumbled awkwardly down at a pace that wasn’t much faster than climbing the other side. At Fat Dog, the descents (at least prior to Bonneveir) were smooth, runnable, and at an ideal pitch for maintaining fluid motion. IMTUF was very different. The trail was a narrow, concave groove, shaped by erosion and punctuated by often loose and jagged rocks…and that’s when there was a trail at all. Still, I was having fun and the course was increasing in beauty at the same rate that it was increasing in difficulty.

I reached Upper Payette Lake feeling great. The brain fog of running one hundred miles prevents me from remembering his name, but a guy who was crewing/pacing for another runner insisted on helping me when he realized I was alone. He refilled my tailwind and snatched bacon from the aid station while I lubed my feet. It was really nice gesture, and saved me a ton of time at an aid station that could have easily become a time-suck. Without help, there was a lot to remember at aid stations, and the combination of fading brainpower and an increased need for problem solving exacerbated the issue.

After an easy stretch, it was on to Terrible Terrence, which Jeremy eloquently described by saying:

It’s still called the Terrible Terrence Trail after my Old Man’s pet name for his brother Terry. They died together on Denali in 2004. This trail reminds me of Terry. Tough, stubborn, and kind of a bastard. Hidden under a rough and scrappy façade is strong character and even some grace.

I thought about this as I slowly traversed the unwieldy terrain. There was a level of intimacy with the race and the course that gave such a beautiful narrative to things that might have otherwise seemed like senseless slogging. The race ran like a story, and I found comfort in eventually becoming its audience and protagonist. After Terrible Terrence, it was an extended climb on a gravel road to Crestline, one of the few climbs that almost invited running. Not wanting to risk anything so early, I settled into a nice hiking rhythm, soon reaching the North Crestline trailhead.

I felt good about my progress. It was warm on the exposed climb to the Crestline trailhead, but I knew that it wouldn’t be long before temperatures swung the other direction. Furthermore, my pace suggested I might get through the Snowslide loop before dark. Past runners I’d talked to agreed that this would be the crux of the race–a very difficult section that could either be the gateway to a strong finish or agonizing defeat.

Shortly after leaving Crestline, I was passed by a couple of elk hunters riding dirt bikes that they were using to schlep bows and supplies. Their friendliness and support was remarkable, as was their ability to maneuver over the rugged terrain on the heavily laden bikes. I’m not sure I would have been particularly comfortable there on a mountain bike with no gear. I wished them well and thanked them for sharing their marvelous home with us. Solid people.

Box Lake
Near Box Lake

We reached Box Lake and new trail. The nearby wildfires forced the race directors to re-construct the course without the northwest and southwest corners of the original. This area was particularly striking. We climbed above the lake and were treated to some amazing views.

Still smiling because…well…it’s amazing. Photo by Howie Stern.

From Box Lake to the Snowslide, I reconnected with Matt from Seattle, and we moved well. The final descent was on trail that seemed a little bit more civilized, similar to what you’d find on sections of the Superior Hiking Trail. Matt commented on my sudden ability to run downhill with a certain grace and comfort that I didn’t exhibit on our previous descents. We arrived at the aid station around 5:30pm, excited that it seemed possible to finish the loop around the civil twilight time of 8:17pm. Completing the loop would tick off the milestones of reaching halfway, completing the most difficult climbs, and turning back towards Burgdorf. The possibility of accomplishing all of those things by nightfall lifted my spirits, adding urgency to my aid station visit that got me back on the trail quickly.

The trail immediately went skyward. I watched as the runners ten miles ahead of me struggled with the tricky descent, some attempting to maintain control on the steep grade, with others embracing the chaos and trying to do as little damage as possible. It was an interesting spectacle, soured only by the realizations that I’d be there later and that this section would surpass my already high expectations for difficulty. There was nothing to do but continue climbing. I couldn’t remember ever doing anything like this.

It was an odd coincidence that I found race director Jeremy at Snowslide Lake. The trail eased up and I looked in awe at the majestic mountain lake in front of me. He struggled to read my reaction, and finally asked if I was just taking it in. I snapped out of my dreamy trance enough to mutter, “Yeah…it’s beautiful…”. We chatted briefly, and I was soon moving again, snaking my way up the obscenely steep and loose saddle. At the top, I found people sprawled on the ground, attempting to reclaim their breath and the bits of soul that had been ripped from their insides by this beast of a climb. I decided to do the same.

The Maki Lake loop was slow, but doable. Tuscobia race directors Helen and Chris Scotch caught up to me, and it was nice to see some new, vaguely familiar faces. It was dark before we reached Maki Lake, so I stopped to put on a jacket. When I reached the descent, I was surprised to find that there were still people going up, clinging to the hope of a 3.5 hour loop to make the cutoff. It had taken me 4.5, and I would later hear of 5, 6, and 7 hour loops. I admired their resolve.

I tried to eat, drink, and catch up on all of the problems caused by the unexpectedly long Snowslide loop. However, I only had so much time before I knew that I’d get cold, so when my new Canadian friend Lourdes left, I decided that I’d follow her and worry about anything I missed later.

I was excited for the road running to Duck Lake trailhead, and furthermore, for the trail beyond it, as I’d heard it was runnable all the way to Upper Payette. Unfortunately, problems started to make themselves apparent. First, nausea hit. This is a problem that has plagued me at each of my three hundred milers, and I’m not really sure how to deal with it. Second, my pampered lungs–accustomed to the luxurious humidity of Minnesota–yielded a nasty sore throat and cough, creating a revolting cycle of the cough irritating the nausea and vice versa. My third problem was that I had to pee every five minutes.

I got through the Duck Lake aid station pretty quickly, but I was fading and starting to let negative thoughts consume me. It was the middle of the night, the people I’d been yo-yoing with had all moved ahead, and I was starting to doubt my ability and desire to make the cutoffs. The thought of dropping at Upper Payette became appealing. Realistically, I knew that it wouldn’t happen for a variety of reasons–most notably because I had no one to drive me back to my tent–but my mind went there anyway.

I didn’t want to stay in that mental place, so I stowed my trekking poles, and started running as hard as I could. I’d only been using them since mile 42, and felt like they’d been encouraging my slow pace. The rest of the section to Upper Payette went pretty well. My spirits lifted, I caught up to my new friends, and I was getting excited to get back to the aid station and my drop bag.

When I arrived, there were a bunch of runners huddled around the fire. It seemed like a dangerous place to be, so I avoided it. The warmth might have been nice, but that would be a difficult place to leave. Instead, I positioned myself uncomfortably on the ground and sorted through my gear.

I was getting really cold as the temperature was dropping and I hadn’t eaten for over two hours, so I put on an extra jacket and took my time eating a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of soup. After leaving the aid station, I realized a number of things that I forgot to do, including applying lube to chaffed unmentionables. Being thirty feet down the trail, I refused to go back, hoping that it would just sort itself out. The mental strain of being a solo runner without a crew was starting to get to me. I was losing motivation and struggling to keep track of the things that I needed to do to keep moving forward.

The first miles after the aid station flew by. I saw Seattle Matt for the first time since the beginning of the Snowslide loop. He was moving a lot better than me, but even our brief encounter lifted my spirits. The guy was a relentless beacon of hope, even when he was going through his own difficulties.

Within a couple miles, things shifted and started to get really bad as we climbed towards the Victor aid station. I had no legs and the temperatures felt like they were plummeting. I was in a perpetual state of adding more layers. The recorded low for McCall was 32F, but it was probably in the 20s at that elevation. I had on a wool baselayer, my Salomon thermal jacket, and a legit mountaineering rain jacket. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as Fat Dog. The upper part of the climb was barren, and I took some time to appreciate the stars overhead. Morning would come soon, but the sky was still a marvelous sea of gems normally hidden to the city-dweller. The sheer beauty of it kept me moving higher.

The snow crunching beneath my feet was a glorious sound. It meant that I was almost to the top. However, this was another climb where the descent rivaled the ascent in difficulty. I moved down it reasonably well and reached the aid station, now run by the packgoat people. They were so nice, so accommodating, and so excited to support us. Unfortunately, I’d arrived physically shattered, and missed out on a lot of fun, including goat selfies.

A 7 mile hike in for the aid station people

On their way to the aid station. Photo credit Irene Saphra from their Facebook gallery

I was hoping that I’d get the same boost from the sun coming up as I had at Superior, but it just wasn’t happening. I slogged for a couple hours as runners streamed by me. It was really cool to see the level of experience at this race. There weren’t very many zombies out there, trudging to the finish line like me. Most people had managed a much better race and were now cashing in on the easier terrain. They had my admiration and respect. Some were truly flying.

As I neared Willow Basket, I tried the same strategy that had gained me a few good miles after Duck Lake–stow the trekking poles and start running as fast as you can. After the initial discomfort, it felt like it was working. I got in and out of the aid station quickly and was on my way to Chinook, only a couple miles down the trail. I felt good about my progress, but soon gave it all back at the aid station.

It was so worth it.

I’d been waiting for a bathroom for over five hours. Jeremy was also hanging out at the aid station, and it was fun to spend a few minutes chatting with him, expressing my appreciation for the extent to which he committed himself to the race. The course was intimate, even in this fire-altered year, and not just a mishmash of trail that happened to cover 100 miles. There was a story, and although I was glad to be almost done with it, I was grateful that he chose to share it with the world.

Running along the river was really nice. I kept a brisk pace, the temperature was ideal, and the terrain was mild. I started hallucinating, but it was relatively benign. The burned stick in front of me transformed into a bird, the stump became a cartoon black bear with giant ears, and so forth… It was somewhat disconcerting, but aside from the occasional stick-bird that I tried to help from the trail, I was generally able to identify things that were probably not real.

Once we crossed the river, the course threw its final challenge at me–heat. I’m sure it wasn’t actually that hot, but I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I didn’t have sunglasses, a hat, or anything other than a long sleeve shirt and 3/4 tights. It felt brutal inching my way up the climb to Loon Lake. It was strange to think that just a few hours earlier, I was shivering in three layers. You just can’t be prepared for it all when you’re on your own and trying to keep your drop bags to a courteous and reasonable size. My pack had ballooned to the size of what Jared and I carried on our Superior thru-hike.

At Loon Lake I dipped my buff and put it around my neck. It was a sweet, albeit momentary relief. I passed through Willow Basket a final time, and was on the final stretch. The terrain was once again runnable, but I was just too hot to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure if there would be water at the water drop, and the prospect of doing ten miles with less than 1.5 liters of water seemed risky…oh, and my legs were fried. I ran a little bit, but mostly it turned into a determined hike.

I reached the Ruby Meadows water drop, where I was able to refill my bottles and revel in the joy of reaching the shady part of the course. It was a gradual uphill to the finish, but there was no longer anything extraordinarily difficult standing between me and Burgdorf. Furthermore, the effort that I’d been able to sustain from Upper Payette was paying off. Even with the brutally slow miles to Victor, I was in great shape for making the cutoff. Generally, I’d aim a little bit higher, but my goal was to go run a race that was out of my comfort zone, with no safety net, and take time to stop and smell the roses. I succeeded in all of those things. There were certainly times when I would have liked to be more positive and unshakeable, or just run better. I tried to be the best me, and I didn’t always succeed. However, I persevered. Somewhere in my spiraling morale, there was always that perspective and willingness to take a brief emotional sidestep that would allow me to continue and regain focus.

Seattle Matt was there to give me a high five at the finish line. The post-race food was plentiful and delicious, and I enjoyed catching up with Chris, Helen, Lourdes, Matt, and a few other people I’d met out on the course. Ultramarathons are usually rife with great people, and this was no exception. Perhaps I was more attuned to it because I had no one else, but I couldn’t have felt better about any group of people. Within thirty minutes I had two offers of places to stay for the night. I was feeling tired, emotional, gross, introspective, and generally over-stimulated, so I decided that I’d go to McCall and be alone, but it was still wonderful that people were so willing to take me in.

Happy to be done. Photo by Howie Stern.
At the finish line
Race director Jeremy looking chipper, while I look like I’m about to curl into the fetal position and cry myself to sleep. Photo by Howie Stern.

Overall, it was a great experience, and I’ll definitely be back to earn the buckle. The people were fantastic, the size of the race was ideal, the course was thoughtfully and artistically constructed, and the setting at Burgdorf was fantastic. THE END.