This past Friday, September 27th, was the 14th annual running of the Bear 100 in Northern Utah. The Bear 100 is a 100 mile journey between Logan, Utah and Fish Haven, Idaho crossing the Bear River Range of the Northern Wahsatch Mountains. It is an extremely rugged route of single track trails and dirt roads that climb and descend a great deal along the way. The other complication is that it is all at altitude, between 4,800 ft. and 9,000 ft. The entire second half sits almost entirely between 7,000 and 9,000 ft. Coming from sea level the altitude element definitely makes things a bit harder. Luckily, Oregonians are tough people and seven of us managed to complete the arduous and staggeringly beautiful course, earning ourselves a shiny belt buckle to prove it (the traditional finisher's "medal" in this strange sport of 100 mile running races).
Michael McCarthy (West Linn), Taylor Spike (Eugene), Carly Koerner (Ashland), Paul Heffernan (Portland), Miles Lilly (Bend), Tonya Littlehales (Bend) and myself (Portland) can all think back to the eye-popping colors, thin air, glorious sun and bright moonlight and feel good about our epic adventures through the buzzing, pulsing mountainscape. It was quite a day (and night) indeed.
Here's some thoughts on my own race experience and/or things I learned or were reminded that apply not only to running 100 miles in the mountains but to life in general:
-Patience and Running My Own Race:
I wanted to place well and feel like I had pushed myself but I didn't want to get caught up in all the competitive business mentally. After all, there's a saying that in a 100 miler, the race doesn't start until mile 70. Worrying about the competition or where you're at too much and you'll waste valuable mental and physical energy. I just needed to focus on staying steady and comfortable and focused in the moment. I tried to simply enjoy the experience, the awesome scenery, the joy of it all, seeing my mom and good friends at the aid stations and crew access points. There are many variables in such a long race and so I wanted to just be prudent and go easy. I knew my feet were sometimes sensitive and where I normally would get tight and sore after long efforts; I was just trying to preserve my body for as long as I could on the tough terrain.
I settled into a good hike in a long line of runners as we narrowed onto single track and began ascending Dry Canyon shortly after the 6AM start. There was no need to run the first 4,000 ft. climb to the Logan Peak Aid Station and Millville Pass. Normally I don't like being all together in a group of other racers like that but I just put my head down and got into a steady, but mellow rhythm in the dark . On the initial big descents, which are usually my bread and butter, I tried to be conservative and smooth and save my quads for all the downhill to come. I told myself to be patient, not to worry, to just chill out and move and have fun. I had only a vague idea of where I was place-wise, and I was able to really not think about it, for the entire race. I was in enough pain in the end that placement was of little concern to me anyhow and my main drive was simply my own sense of accomplishment and getting it done.
-Being Present/Enjoying Where You Are:
I literally teared up at the top of Dry Canyon (I guess that's ironic) as we wrapped around the open, west-facing slopes of Little Baldy with the sun rising and casting a glorious light on everything. I truly have never seen more brightly colored foliage in my life as I did in the mountains there. The yellow of the aspens and the red of the maple trees were almost too much to believe. If my race had ended then, at that moment of overwhelming joy that brought tears to my eyes, I would have still been happy. Luckily it was relatively easy to be present and enjoy my surroundings in such a gorgeous place because in a long race you need focus in the moment or you'll psych yourself out by the enormity of the task ahead.
Another thing that added to the enjoyment was listening to music for some periods of the day. Usually I don't listen to music when I run but that day I decided to indulge and it was a blast. My friend/crew/and pacer Yassine had made me a special mystery mix on his iPod and he handed it off to me all ready to go at the Cowley Canyon Aid Station. I donned the headphones and was soon head nodding and wildly gesticulating as I danced down the descents, power hiked the uphills and rolled over the cruiser sections while pounding hip hop or techno filled my ears. I normally like the silence and sounds of the natural world around, but over the long day it was good to mix it up.
One of the coolest parts of the whole experience was during the night when the nearly full moon came out and shown down upon us. Many times, for good sections of running, we were able to shut our headlamps off and simply run by the moonlight through the elegant, surreal mountains. The moon was so bright we could have read a book and so it was without much difficulty that we ran over the glowing earth, our simple forms moving through the milky light.
It's hard to maintain proper hydration and consume enough calories over such a long period with so many variables. It takes self-discipline to maintain regular eating over the course of a race, especially as many runners will have sensitive stomachs and find it hard to get much down. The consequences of the lack of discipline could end your race though, or in extreme cases, your life. If you're hiking through the hot desert you need to drink, and drink often. Failure to do so would, obviously, be dire. If you're running through the mountains for 24+ hours you need to eat and drink, and you need to eat and drink often.
I came into the Tony Grove Aid Station at mile 52 feeling low and not so good. Even though I'd been trying my discipline had wavered and I think I got off my schedule of calorie consumption. I sat for 15 minutes at Tony Grove trying to eat and play catch up. It worked, just barely, and soon enough I was back on my way.
It takes discipline to keep a positive, focused frame of mind, to not get psyched out by the competitive aspects or by social or personal pressures. It takes a ton of self-discipline to even arrive at the start line adequately trained and properly prepared. Hell, sometimes it takes discipline to even get out of bed.
-Maintaining Forward Progress/One Piece at a Time:
One of my favorite parts of running 100 miles is that it makes all other challenges of life seem much more manageable. Motivation speakers could have a field day drawing parallels between 100 milers and ultra-marathons and how we approach the rest of life's challenges. In a 100 miler the main thing is to keep moving forward, even if you aren't running. Just one step, one section, one piece at a time. I heard a quote recently, something like: "I cannot run 100 miles, but I can run 1 mile, 100 times." You get the idea.
By the time night fell at the Bear and the temperature dropped, I was feeling pretty slow with painful feet and blown quads--so much for the damage control I'd been attempting. I knew how to tough it out though even if it meant trudging along at a slow but steady pace, just one foot in front of the other. The terrain got rockier and rockier as my feet and quads got more thrashed which was an extremely pleasant combination of trends as you can imagine. I sucked it up on the final ~7 mile, 3,000 ft. descent to Fish Haven and on I marched, just one foot, one piece at a time, always maintaining forward progress no matter how dismal my pace, no matter how painful each step had become.
-The Amazing Blessings that are Loved Ones, Crews, Pacers, and Volunteers:
I was so incredibly fortunate to have three dear people at the Bear this year to support me. My mom, close friend and selfless supporter, flew out from Chicago and stayed up all night long crewing, driving from aid station to aid station, giving me hugs and boosting my spirits. My good friend and business partner Yassine Diboun generously lent his time to crew and pace me from mile 75 to the finish, through the moonlit night. A truly unforgettable experience! My good friend from college, and local Utah badass Chris Cawley came out to crew and pace me from mile 52-75. We got some moonlight running in too and laughed and reminisced as we rolled along for hours. Yassine and I intermittently talked like Bill Swerski's Super Fans--the "Da Bears" characters from Saturday Night Live fame. We knew that if anyone heard us they'd think we'd gone completely mad, which of course would be partially right.
I thought about all the people I love and am lucky to know while I ran and I drew energy from it. I felt the boost from seeing Yassine and Chris and my mom at aid stations and felt the deepest gratitude and love toward them. The whole event was a low-key, down home, family style sort of deal and so it was a treat to see all the other runners and their families and crews, husbands, wives, kids, and dogs. It's a great and fascinating community and the positive vibes are far-reaching.
When all was said and done and I drove away from the enormous Bear Lake with my belt buckle in hand I was filled with a sense of accomplishment, and humbled yet again by nature and the mountains I'd just managed to cross. I felt proud that myself and 6 other sea-level Oregonians had tackled the Bear--wrestled it even--and made it through to tell the tale.
Here's to all starters who were brave enough to even begin such a difficult event and to all finishers who were able to finish it off. Cheers!
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.