The Bear 100 - take two.
One moment I was running down the trail, enjoying a perfect spring day with one of my best friends. The next moment I was on the ground - pain searing through my ankle. A stream of curse words flew from my mouth as I sat in the dirt. "It's not broken, it can't be broken," I thought. My second attempt at the Bear 100 was a mere five months away and I had waited two years for my chance at redemption. After a LONG 5 mile hike out of the woods, a restless night of sleep and one x-ray, I had my confirmation. It was broken.
My attempt at the Bear 100 in 2019 had been one the best adventures of my life. I was an inexperienced ultra runner and I went out to Utah with the goals to experience the course, give it my all, and have fun along the way. I accomplished all those goals, but at DNF at mile 69 left me wanting more. I knew that with a little more experience, all the lessons learned in 2019, and some better luck with the weather, a Bear buckle was within my reach.
The summer of 2020 was the best training season I've ever had. I had finished midwifery school, and had the flexibility to run in the mountains a few times a month. The summer was filled with long runs, solid speedwork and mountain adventures. I've never felt more fit or prepared for a race in my life. However, the universe had other plans and the Covid-19 pandemic prevented me from flying to Utah for the race. It's all miles in the bank, I thought. More time can only help my chances.
After a winter of slightly lower, but still regular training, and an early April self-supported 50k, my 2021 training season was off to a good start. Until April 20, the day at Androscoggin Riverlands State Park, where one misstep put me on crutches for the first time in my life. "It's ok," I said to myself "there's plenty of time before the Bear." "It's ok," I told my PT and running coach "I'll be able to run 100 miles in 5 months." As many times as I said it was ok, I wasn't sure if I believed it. But I had to believe it. I knew there was no way I would finish 100 miles if even a tiny part of me believed I couldn't do it.
After 2 weeks I started walking with the boot, then transitioned to walking with a brace and riding a stationary bike. On May 31 I ran 6 x 30 second intervals. The next 3.5 months were a physical battle of pushing my body just enough, while not overdoing it. I would start to feel solid and confident, and then my ankle would roll and I'd be forced to take another few days off. I was grateful for the expertise of my coach, Kelton, while also finding every opportunity to question his conservative approach. It was also a mental battle of making myself believe that, despite this major set back, I would be ready to run the Bear. There were time's I almost gave up. Moments when the stress and logistics of trying just didn't seem worth it. But somehow, in every moment I felt like saying forget it, my partner or my dad or my coach would remind me that I could.
On September 24, 2021, I again stood at the starting line of the Bear 100. My ankle was wrapped securely in a brace I had sworn up and down I wouldn't wear for 100 miles and now couldn't imagine running without. The weather forecast looked perfect - the complete opposite of 2019. I had a solid crew comprised of family, friends and complete strangers. I still wasn't sure I could finish, but I had spent enough months making myself believe it that I felt ready.
As the road funnels to single track for the initial ascent, I felt myself getting pushed uphill by the crowd behind me. I would let people pass and immediately a new group of people would catch up to me. I pushed hard on the first part of the climb, because climbing is my strength, but by halfway up the climb, 5 miles in, I couldn't catch my breath. This was a new sensation and NOT AT ALL how I felt at this point in the 2019 race. "Shit" I thought "something is off. This is not my day."
I took a deep breath and slowed my stride. I stopped to eat because I couldn't eat and climb at the same time and I knew I would need the fuel for the hours to come. Eventually the aid station at mile 10 appeared, a signal that the climb was over and we had a lovely downhill to come. I pulled out my water to refill but to my surprise it was still mostly full. Did I really just carry 2 liters of water up that climb and only drink quarter of it?! I grabbed a few snacks and headed on my way.
The next 10 miles are fun. This section starts out rocky, which I took slow because of my wobbly ankle, but once I got on the single track things felt much better. My ankle was sore, but not in a concerning way. I came into the Leatham Canyon aid station smiling. My dad and sister were there to crew, but they were distracted by a fellow runner who was exhibiting early signs of anaphylaxis. We repacked my vest, slathered me in sunscreen and I set off.
The next stretch is a section of dirt road that I remembered being fairly runable but by now it was midday and the heat was beating down. So much for a high in the 60s! I've always struggled in the heat, and today, with the addition of the breathlessness, was no different. Take it slow, I reminded myself. One foot in front of the other I climbed through the aspens. At some point I realized it had been over 10 hours and I hadn't yet had the urge to pee. Not great. I focused on drinking and eating and moving forward. I arrived at Cowley Canyon (mile 30ish) hot, tired and discouraged. I remember vividly watching a runner drop here in 2019 and feeling so good that I couldn't imagine ever having that urge. An aid station volunteer filled my bladder with icy water and I sat in a chair and ate and drank and contemplated dropping.
Just then an internet connection turned friend, Alex, showed up. I had been wondering all day if she had been in front of or behind me. This was her first attempt at 100 miles and we had chatted frequently in the weeks leading up to the race. I knew the next stretch was going to be brutal in the heat, but she encouraged me to leave with her. Plus, I had promised my crew I wouldn't drop unless I timed out.
We chatted for a bit but it wasn't long before my lungs wouldn't let me keep pace with her. She disappeared up the hot, dusty road. I wouldn't see her again during the race, but she ended up finishing all 100 miles. I felt delirious trudging up the road with the sun beating on my back, but I knew relief wasn't far away.
A left hand turn takes you miraculously from a sun beaten ATV road, to a shady, runable single track and just like that my mood changed. I knew the heat was done as sunset was near, and I tried not to think about tomorrow's forecast of sun and even warmer temperatures. I played and partied my way down the single track and before long found my dad and his golden retriever puppy, Moki, cheering on the side of the trail. My solo miles were over.
Dad, Moki and I made our way into the Right Hand Fork aid station, one of the few stretches of the course with two way traffic. We exchanged smiles, high fives and "go get 'ems" with fellow runners. Then suddenly, a familiar face appeared. "Acadia?" Brian smiled "what are you doing here?" As we shared a hug, I laughed and responded that I was running 100 miles. In a former life Brian and I had spent many weeks together guiding people down the Salmon River, and he now lived in California with his partner, who he was pacing. They left down the trail as I headed into the aid station to meet my crew and pick up my first pacer.
This year, instead of bringing friends with me from Maine, I assembled my crew from folks I knew (or didn't know) in Utah. Besides my dad (crew chief extraordinaire!) and sister, Rachel, Jessi and Sierra, both friends from my days ski patrolling were there. They intended to pace me through sections later in the race, but were happy to jump in to bring me soup and help my dad change my socks and check for blisters (amazingly, none!). Joining me for the night at Right Hand Fork was Meridith, who I had met when I asked in a Facebook group if anyone wanted to pace me, and Allie (also met through Facebook!) would be jumping in later to pace.
After an efficient stop, Meridith and I said our goodbyes and headed into the dusk. I explained what had been going on with my breathing and that the climbs were going to be slower than I had expected. Meridith responded with dad jokes. We chatted and climbed and jogged up into Temple Fork, watching the sun set and I commented how much luckier she was than Eva had been two years prior, when I had become the meanest version of myself through this stretch. Meridith responded with dad jokes. As the sun set, we pulled on our layers and our headlamps and warmed up with soup and a cup of the worst instant coffee I've ever drank at Temple Fork, then we began our climb.
Unlike the early miles of the race, this section of the race had gone so poorly in 2019 that I felt amazing. We climbed at a steady pace, and I didn't have to stop as often as previously in the day. We watched the moon rise and set numerous times as we changed direction in the canyon and both jumped out of our skin when a beaver splashed into a pond we didn't even know existed in the dark.
We climbed until we reached an ATV road. This was where the course veered from previous years, a reroute around some construction happening at Tony Grove (also the reason we wouldn't see my crew for a total of 27 miles.) We headed down the road but before long got turned around. After a few moments of backtracking we made it onto the correct path again. As the miles ticked by and the temperature dropped we started to wonder where the hell the aid station was. I was lost and confused in the dark on this new course and was really ready for tights and some more coffee! But yet again, Meridith was prepared for the moment with dad jokes.
After what felt like hours, but I'm sure was not that much time, lights appeared out of the darkness. Meridith and I cheered into the darkness and hustled into the aid station. First things first, find my drop bag and change into warmer clothes. The aid station leader told me to head in the warming tent, but I declined. I know what happens to people who go into warming tents in the middle of the night during ultramarathons. They don't come out. After changing, eating and refilling my vest, we headed out. As we were leaving we heard the aid station volunteers discussing logistics for getting "the worst three out." I grimaced and then laughed and said "well I might be DFL but at least I'm not one of 'the worst three.'"
We climbed up a faint, but well marked trail along a fence line. At this point I had no idea where we were but the wide sagebrush fields allowed for good visibility of the reflective course markings. We walked and jogged and chatted our way down the trail until, suddenly, it hit me. The unexpected and unwelcome wave of exhaustion. There's tired, the kind of tired that makes you think you'll sleep well tonight and that a cup of coffee can fix. And then there's the kind of tired that means your feet are stumbling as you fall asleep standing up. I'm a midwife, I know all to well the difference between these two kinds of tired.
I quickly ate a package of caffeinated gels, knowing full well they weren't going to save me now. "I need to lay down." I told Meridith. "I don't think so," she responded, "keep moving." "Nope, just 5 minutes. I need 5 minutes." I curled up on a rock and promptly fell into deep, REM, dream producing sleep. 6 minutes later (she gave me a bonus minute), Meridith woke me up. It took me just a split second to remember where I was and what I was doing there. (Midwifery is also good practice for this skill). I jumped up and we were off again.
I vividly remember this section in 2019 as nothing more than staring at the reflectors on the back of my pacers shoes. I don't like the dark, I never have, and I was surprised and how not nervous I was. This time was totally different. This time I had enough energy to be anxious about the "creatures in the dark." But we just kept moving forward.
Eventually, we knew we should be getting close the aid station. Meridith had been with me for over 12 hours, through the night, and was heading for her distance PR. We were both cold but knew I would be cutting it close with the Franklin Basin aid station, just like I had in 2019. I wasn't particularly worried though, I had done it then, and once the sun came up I knew I would get a burst of energy. Besides my slightly irritable IT band, my body felt great. Even my ankle had stopped aching the day before.
Suddenly we saw a headlamp coming up the trail. It was a hiker carrying a blanket. "Are you looking for someone?" We asked. He told us a runner had fallen and torn their ACL and he was going to find them. ("See!" Meridith pointed out "you weren't DFL!") we wished him luck and then thought to ask him how far to the aid station. "About three miles" he responded before walking off. According to our calculations, we should have been there by now, and we still had three miles to go! Well shit, looks like I wasn't making the cut off at Franklin Basin this year after all.
In that moment, I wasn't disappointed. The small part of me that never believed I could finish exclaimed "64 miles! You'll have done 64 miles!" The part of me that wanted to bail at mile 10 yelled "Way to push through!" But in the weeks that followed the part of me that was too tired to speak at that moment would want to shout about everything I could have done differently.
Meridith and I shivered our way down the trail, picking up first my dad, and then Jessi and finally my sister and Sierra. I could tell they were disappointed, but they hid it well and we all came into the aid station together. This time I headed straight to the warming tent.
5 months and 4 days after fracturing and spraining my ankle, I ran and hiked 64 miles through the Utah mountains. Sure it was my second DNF on this course, but it was also my redemption. I'm so grateful for the folks who pushed me to fight to get to this starting line and to make it as far as possible.
I have unfinished business with the Bear 100 and I will be back.