The morning was muggy, strange for Utah in late September. The air was filled with nervous anticipation and excited chatter. We congregated in a crowd, there was no real “starting line,” and then we all began to run. I waved goodbye to my father, who was to be my crew chief, my friend Eva, who had flown all the way out with me to pace me, and my mother, who promised to be at the start and the finish but was not interested in seeing any of the blood, sweat and tears in between.
I was swept off with the crowd, alone in a sea of strangers. Surrounded by strange people, I was not in a strange place. We jogged past the field where my best friend and I had gotten caught in the summer sprinklers while star gazing in high school. We stared up at the moonlight shadow of Logan Peak and the Bear River Range beyond. These were the mountains that raised me. The mountains where I spent every winter Sunday of my childhood skiing, where I slept many nights on many backpacking adventures and even where I had my first kiss. These mountains were the reason I was here.
I had never intended to run a 100-mile race. Does anyone ever set out on their running journey intending to get pulled into long ultra-marathons? While training for my first marathon I had discovered a love of trail running which quickly led me to my first 50 mile ultra. I loved the 50-mile distance! It was far enough to require a lot of training and dedication but short enough that you could go home and sleep at night. I would likely have been content running 50 miles races forever, if not for the Bear.
It was late September in 2018, just four and a half months after my first 50-mile race, and my Instagram was flooded with pictures of home. These pictures showed the fall aspens in all their glory, highlighted against a deep azure sky. They showed incredible runners pushing through the depths of the pain cave to earn their buckle and the plaque depicting all 22,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. I scrolled through those pictures on Instagram and I knew that I would toe the starting line at the 2019 Bear 100.
As we began our initial, and the biggest, ascent I listened to the hooting of a great horned owl and thought about how incredibly lucky I was to be there. I could have felt like an imposter as people around me chatted about the previous 100’s they had completed just that summer, but I didn’t. I felt right at home, and even as the sunrise was obscured by thick clouds and we began to get rained on, I felt nothing but excitement for the miles to come.
This is the race that by all accounts should never have happened. I was a new and inexperienced ultra-runner. I was in my last, and most time- and energy-consuming, year of midwifery school. I had spent my summer training by running laps on my local trails (including a self-supported 50 miler), never able to be far from my car should I get a call for a client in labor (and on more than one occasion I did!) I missed training days while working and hauled myself over mountains after missing multiple nights of sleep. When I wasn’t working or running I was eating, much to the amusement of my coworkers and friends. The summer had passed in a blur but despite all odds I felt ready when I arrived in Utah.
The Logan Peak aid station at mile 10 was a whole different world. Shrouded in clouds and mist I shivered as the volunteers filled up my water bottles and I grabbed some food. The trail had turned to a thick mud that clogged our shoes as we began our descent and I chatted with some friendly runners, taking my mind off the miles to come. This section was a gorgeous downhill single track and I came into the Leatham Hollow aid station (mile 19) feeling giddy and excited.
My crew, consisting of my sister Rachel and my father, met me at Leatham Hollow. Neither of them had ever seen an ultra, much less crewed one, but I knew years of family adventures had prepared them well. My sister took my vest and repacked it quickly (something she would do flawlessly at every subsequent aid station) while my dad checked in on what I needed. I was feeling good so set off quickly.
A brief dirt road section was soon followed by a gorgeous climb through the aspens. Here was the Bear I had seen depicted in the Instagram pictures a year prior! The aspens shown against a perfect blue sky and I found myself alone for the first time all day. I shifted between power hiking and jogging and still felt strong, despite some foot tenderness, coming into the Cowley Canyon aid station at mile 29. The heat of the day pounded on my back as I navigated the backcountry dirt roads but I was far enough ahead of schedule that I worried if my crew would be waiting for me at the Right Hand Fork aid station (mile 37). My dad, Rachel and Eva were there, and I beamed through the evening light, excited for what was to come.
I was lucky that I got to combine this race with a trip home. Since moving to Maine in 2015 I had only gotten to see my family once or twice per year and I had not been to my childhood home in that time. I had become a trail runner in Maine and the silky, switch backing single track was a treat I was not accustomed too. I was also thrilled to have the support of my family on this epic adventure, and that Eva, my BRF (best running friend) from Maine, was willing to make the trek out with me to be part of the adventure.
As sometimes happens in ultra-running, my perfect race changed in an instant. While my energy and spirits were still high coming into Right Hand Fork, my feet were tired from bearing my weight for the past 11 hours. I laid back on my dad’s tailgate to elevate my feet while my sister repacked my vest and Eva prepared to pace me through the next section. Only a moment later I felt the unwelcome sensation of nausea and immediately began to hurl.
I sat, shaky and surprised at this new development, suddenly zapped of all the energy I had felt moments before. “Are you done vomiting?” my dad asked before handing me my hydration vest and poles and sending me off down the trail with Eva. I resented him pushing me out of that aid station while also knowing it was my only chance of staying in the race.
Over the next 8 miles we hiked in silence. I could not stomach the idea of eating anything except starlight mints, which Eva religiously handed to me every few minutes. The course was perfect; easy flat single track and a gentle downhill on a dirt road, but I couldn’t make my legs move faster than a shuffle. Vomiting had zapped every energy store I had and left me unable to refuel.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, we arrived at the Temple Fork aid station (mile 45) in the dark. I had lost a good chunk of my comfortable lead over the cut off times and I found myself in a place of chasing time and lost calories. One foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. The last big hill.
I hadn’t said more than 5 words to Eva since she joined me at Right Hand Fork and the 7-mile climb to Tony Grove was no different. I had just enough energy to move my body forward, but I was so grateful for the quiet company. Having run hundreds of miles together, she knew what I needed and gently encouraged me to eat and drink, despite my unkind grumblings. As we got deeper into the night and higher in elevation the temperature began to drop significantly, and I was stumbling with fatigue. A mile or two before Tony Grove (mile 52) I pulled on my emergency wind shell and Eva began blasting music from her phone and dancing down the trail in front of me. Jogging into the Tony Grove aid station, just 60 minutes before the cut off time, I again felt like I had a shot at finishing this thing.
At 12:00 am, just moments after our arrival at Tony Grove, the downpour began. We knew the weather was going to turn, we had all been watching the forecast with bated breath. There had been winter storm warnings for that weekend, and the race directors were urging people to get back over the canyon as soon as possible upon finishing the race. I had packed multiple changes of clothing for every possible scenario. At Tony Grove I quickly changed into thermal tights and a smart wool shirt and my sister fed me bone broth and wrapped Eva in a blanket while my dad and Joscelyn (who had joined my crew after finishing work for the day) tended to my blistered feet. Joscelyn’s husband, Landon, ready to pace me through the rest of the night, looked at his watch and assured me that we had plenty of time to reach the next aid station. “You set the pace,” I told him, “and I will keep up with you.” “If she starts to fall asleep on the trail, play music and dance,” Eva instructed. 30 minutes before the cut-off Landon and I set out through the rain and the darkness to the wild cheering of the entire Tony Grove aid station crew. I might have been dead f***ing last, but I wasn’t going down without a fight.
I had known Landon for over 5 years, having worked together as river guides in northern Idaho. Both of us had become trail runners after retiring from guiding, and I hadn’t seen him since I moved to Maine. We passed the dark hours catching up on our lives over the past few years, he told me about meeting and marrying Joscelyn (who I had never met prior to her dressing my blistered feet at the previous aid station), and threw all sorts of nerdy geology facts at my exhausted brain. I followed the reflection of his shoes, while he followed the course markers and the weather oscillated between drenching rain and clearing to reveal thousands of stars, while the temperature dropped to near freezing. My headlamp batteries were not lasting more than a few hours in the cold but thankfully I had been prepared with spares. With every rain storm the trail became increasingly slick and treacherous, slowing our pace at times to a near crawl. We saw only one other runner, and I felt very concerned leaving him alone without a pacer, but he ushered us on.
Sliding down the muddy trail into the Franklin Trailhead at mile 61, Landon asked me what I wanted to do. We had five minutes until the cut off time and it would have been so easy to call it quits. We were soaked, muddy, hungry and exhausted and the weather was only getting worse. But instead of taking the time to think about it, I told him not to ask me and he understood. Landon jogged down the trail to let my crew know I was coming. Someone handed me a cup of broth, which I drank and someone else put a plate full of steaming quesadilla and sizzling bacon in my hand. Eva, my dad, and my sister were all there but there was no time to get a dry layer or do more than quickly fill my bottles as my sister stuffed extra gels into my pack. “How are you?” my dad asked. “exhausted. . . wet . . . cold. . .” I replied as we walked out of the aid station with 30 seconds to spare, and somehow without the bacon and quesadilla!
Landon and I made it a few hundred yards out of the aid station and sat on a log to get our bearings. I quickly began to regret my decision and told him we could just turn around and still catch my crew. He told me it was too late now and that I would have to keep moving forward. He offered me his extra fleece which I pulled on over the multiple soaking layers I was already wearing. I was uncomfortably cold, even as we climbed the next hill, but Landon assured me if I wasn’t shivering, I was fine. Just before dawn I began to fall asleep on my feet again and began to stumble. Landon played music and tried to get my energy up, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been with Eva. I wanted nothing more than a nap but we both feared I was too cold for it to be safe. Eventually my body won, and I laid down in the mud with my head on a log. Twenty minutes later I sat bolt upright. Landon was playing a game on his phone and told me he had been just about to wake me up. Surprisingly, my body hadn’t gotten any colder and I was filled with a new sense of energy. The faint light of early dawn was just starting to lighten the sky and we both knew there was no chance of getting to the Logan River aid station before the 9 am cut off.
Landon and I slipped and slid through the mud, up over mountain ridges as thunderstorms crashed around us and we got pelted with hail and freezing rain. There was a peace in knowing it was over and I found enough energy to take pictures and videos and laugh at the absurdity of what we were doing. As we approached the 69-mile mark on our GPS watches I realized we were closer to the cut off then I had imagined, and I fought the urge to slow down. I needn’t have worried though because our technology was a few miles off. As we descended the dirt road I started to panic, and, for the first time in 28 hours, I began to cry. We had been so close to the cut off at the last aid station 4 hours prior. What if they had marked me as a DNF there and the people at this aid station had packed up and gone home? What if we had to trudge the 7 more miles up and over the next pass to where our crew was waiting? My fears were only half true, as the aid station volunteers had packed up but the radio/safety crew was still waiting for us. I was the last person on the course and when the volunteer radioed my DNF to the race organizers they responded with, “111 *finally* gave up?!”
Landon and I huddled next to the single propane heater as we waited for a ride to the next aid station where my crew was waiting for us. As the rain flowed in sheets off the easy-up I smiled and chatted with the volunteers. They told me I had the best mood of anyone who had come through that morning, but how could I not be? I had signed up for an epic adventure and mother nature delivered. The Bear River Range got drenched with 1/5 of its total YEARLY rain fall on the weekend of September 27-29, 2019. The next day we would spend hours at Maple Grove Hot Springs, as snow fell around us, and recount our various tales from the day. Before I even slept, I would begin dreaming about coming back to the Bear and would make notes about what I would want to do differently. When registration opened a few weeks later, I would eagerly pay my $200 for a chance to earn my buckle in 2020. I would plan, and dream and train but as the race drew nearer, and a global pandemic continued to rage, I would make the decision that it was too risky to fly across the country, and my buckle would have to wait another year.
There are hundreds of ultra-marathons, even long ones, but to me the Bear will always be special. There is nothing that can top the feeling of being supported by family and friends who will brave the elements to help you succeed. This journey would not have been possible, or nearly as much fun, without the people who supported and encouraged me every step of the way. From the incredible training partners in Maine, to my co-workers who tracked my progress online, sending me goofy pictures along the way, to my GOTR girls who filmed a cheer that brought me to tears the night before. From an Instagram stranger turned friend who imparted all her wisdom about the Bear through my never-ending questions, and the love of my life who supports my crazy, no questions asked. My mother, who opened her home to me and my friends, so we had a safe, warm place to land, and to my crew, the best crew out there.
So many thanks to my dear friend Eva who didn’t question what it would mean to fly across the country and be part of this journey with me, and who “got” to see me at my absolute worst, but still calls herself my friend. To Joscelyn, who provided expert foot care the first time I ever met her and kept everyone smiling. To Landon, who pushed me forward through the cold, the dark, the rain and the mud and still claims it was his favorite run ever. To my sister, Rachel, who had never touched a hydration vest but somehow managed to pack it perfectly every time, and who had a plethora of homemade goodies to fuel me, and the rest of the crew, before, during and after the race. And of course, to my crew chief, and father. The person who instilled my sense of adventure and has always pushed me to go further than I ever thought possible. Thank you for not hesitating to run my crew, and for figuring it out so flawlessly on the fly. Thank you for watching your daughter suffer and still be able to push her back onto the trail when it was time to go.
I don’t know when I’ll get another chance at completing the Bear, but I do know that I will. I am grateful for all the lessons learned during my first attempt and Bear 2019 will always rank with the top adventures of my life.