I’d never run 100 miles. I wasn’t even sure I could. My friends assured me that I could, so I decided that nothing would stop me from crossing the finish line.
When extreme weather threatened the Bear 100, my biggest concern wasn’t the cold, the wet, or the miserable, (though I was terrified at the prospect). My fear was that the race director would be forced to pull runners from the course for safety precautions before reaching the finish.
I was determined to run strong and happy.
So, surrounded by friends – and rain gear easily accessible – I started off on what would prove to be one of my biggest adventures yet.
It had been a torrential downpour hours leading up to the start of the race and any hopes of keeping my feet dry and clean were squashed less than a mile in. I don’t remember much about the first 12.5 miles of the race other than there was a ton of running…actual running! I was grateful when I felt a tap on my butt and found my very good friend and training partner Kenzie, right next to me. I felt strong as we headed up the first climb. This is what I had trained for, and I felt comfortable with the pace. Chatting with another friend, Cody, was a welcome distraction.
Despite the mud, slick rocks, and rivers running down the trail, I couldn’t get over the beauty of the canyon. The leaves were vibrant and for a moment, as a cloud parted, I could see the colors on the hill topped in white from freshly fallen snow. It was spectacular and I couldn’t stop smiling.
The descent into Leatham Hollow could have been the most incredible section to run of the whole race – beautiful single track lined with pines, maples, and aspens, with some pristine downhill running – but with the slick mud on the trail, I was forced to slow down considerably and watch my step. Perhaps this would help me later on in my race. It forced me to run smart and stay conservative.
At the Latham Hollow Aid Station (~20 mi) my crew was there to fill my bottles, take my headlamp, and feed me. They were a welcome sight. Kenzie would leave seconds before me and I would spend most of the remainder of my time just minutes behind her. I wanted to speed up and catch her for the next climb out of Richards Hollow (~23) but I knew I had to run my own race and if I pushed too hard, too early, I would regret it later on.
Up to that point, I had felt great. So at mile 23 when I began to feel miserable, I doubted myself for the first time. I had been warned that I would likely hit a low spot at 30-35 miles in, and so a mile 24 bonk seemed too early. Oh no.
I slowed down. I would just take it easy until I snapped out of it. I knew that I would be picking up a pacer in 14 miles and that I needed to continue, one foot in front of the other, until I reached him. I had put my waterproof mitten covers over my gloves too late and my hands were now wet and frozen. I also managed to slip and fall, sliding down the right side of the trail and banging up my knee. I came upon another runner a couple miles up the climb named Shane, who had run the Wasatch 100 just two weeks earlier. I can easily say he saved my race. He distracted me from my mental block and kept me moving. It would have been easy for him to take off, I told him he should, but he stayed with me, encouraged me, and fed me licorice. We reached the top of the climb and easily breezed the two miles down to the next aid station (~30).
I had to grab my drop bag to change out my gloves. I knew I had no gloves in there but a pair of clean wool socks would suffice, and picked up hand warmers as well. The sensation in my hands would come back. There was a short climb followed by a long decent into Right Hand Fork. The decent was much longer than I thought it would be. I ran into RHF, which is a short out and back, and Kenzie was running out with her pacer Heidi. I was thrilled. She looked so good!
After that section, I was happy to see not only my crew, but so many other friends out there willing and wanting to help me. Kristyan and Matt led me to a spot they’d set up and they made me sit while they fed me and changed my socks. Aaron, Annie, and Wendy were all there making sure I had everything that I didn’t know I needed. There is NO way I could have had a successful race in any condition had it not been for my crew. The selfless acts of service and encouragement that they offered kept me moving when it seemed an impossible task.
Having my pacer Aaron join me was incredibly helpful. I had begun feeling better physically and having a friend by my side gave a considerable boost mentally and emotionally. I had run this next section from Right Hand Fork all the way to Tony Grove several weeks earlier and was familiar with the terrain. I was surprised at how well I was able to move over those 15 miles. Aaron encouraged me, sang to me, and laughed with me. His optimistic demeanor and overall positive nature was just what I needed to get through the mud slog from Temple Fork (45) to Tony Grove (53). The rain turned into snow and we were treated with some of the most amazing spectacles of white, green, and gold. By the time we were coming down the single track to Tony, I felt incredible, I felt strong, I felt capable. I had gone more than 50 miles, and I knew I could do 50 more.
Wet, snowy, muddy, frozen conditions would lay in wait for me through the night. I changed into all new dry clothing: warm tights, a dry long sleeve, an extra warm layer, my waterproof rain jacket, a beanie, and new, warmer gloves. I had something to eat, something hot to drink, grabbed a quesadilla to go, and Matt, my second pacer, and I were off. The snow was falling and the aspens glowed. The trail was slick but we had fun making our way down through the mud and I felt like I was moving well.
The next couple miles, though not steep, would prove to be difficult. Many runners were still making their way to Temple Fork for the first time and the trail had turned into sludge, or as Phil Lowry put it, poo mud. Once I was past the super slick single track I began to hike with purpose. I felt like I was charging up the hill and with a friend by my side, I was having the time of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I was tired and miserably cold, but I was happy. It was just another long day in the mountains. I didn’t see many others on the trail but occasionally I would see the light of their headlamps in the distance in front or behind me. Having a friend there made all of the difference.
I ran well going back down to Right Hand Fork and was able to warm up considerably. Little did I know that would be the last time I would feel warmth until the finish. Kenzie was just leaving as I came in. She continued to press forward, race smart, and give me the motivation to stay on course. It was a truly impressive sight. After a quick sock change and refuel, Matt and I were off. What had seemed like a long decent at mile 31, was now a never ending accent. I couldn’t believe how long it seemed. The original course had several climbs in the last 25 miles but nothing as long or as mind numbing as this. Matt could tell it took everything I had to keep moving so he distracted me with stories and singing. The snow was now coming down hard and it was difficult to see the trail. I had put on a down jacket and that proved to be the variable that would keep me able to continue moving forward. My legs were numb, my feet were numb, my fingers were numb.
“At the next aid station you will drink something hot, eat something, and grab something to go,” Matt repeated. I knew that the key to staying warm, or at least not completely frozen, was to just keep on moving. When we reached Cowley (~75), Benj, Kenzie’s pacer, was grabbing her some warm food and he told us her core temperature had dropped severely and she was attempting to warm up in the warming hut. I yelled out to her, told her I loved her, and told her to get something warm and move her butt. She never heard me. I didn’t go near the warming hut. I knew it would be nearly impossible to leave if I did. Matt and I went up a little climb before the longest decent of my life. The snow didn’t cease to fall. I kept hoping for a respite from the storm but it simply didn’t come. Puddles of ice water were impossible to avoid, snow covered mud made it difficult to find footing and move with any sort of purpose.
My head was focused straight down at the trail, trying to see when I suddenly found myself right on top of a cow, startling me so badly it caused me to scream out. For over two miles we would be stuck behind those cows. Matt ran ahead, hooting and hollering, trying to herd them off the trail (he was a rancher in a former life) with little success. I wanted to cry for the first time, I think I probably did. Finally he found a small trail on the other side of the creek that looped around where the cows were. He got in front of the cows and stopped them, and kept yelling at me to hurry. I just stood their in the frozen water, staring at a giant log topped with several inches of snow, wondering how I could possibly get my leg over that thing without falling into the creek. I don’t know how long I stood there before I finally had the courage to grab hold of the log and haul my body over. It worked, the cows were now behind us.
I spent almost no time at Richards Hollow (~83). The hot vegetable broth and fire pit were inviting but I had to keep moving. Only 3 miles to the next aid station.
I stumbled into Leatham (~86) completely battered. Matt was calling for my crew but nobody was there. Kristyan quickly emerged and led me to a chair where I changed my shoes for the first time. I would regret my shoe decision later on but it was nice to feel dry for the last climb. I exchanged my puffy coat for a different, dry warm layer and a poncho. It was at this point that Tommy Barlow told me that F2 and 3 had just left. I took little interest, I was running my own race, but there may have been a part of me that wanted to catch them. That thought quickly vanished as I made my way up the last climb.
I picked up my last pacer Matt Van Horn, and we were off. The last major climb was long and I was slow. Matt would keep telling me to “hike with purpose.” I wanted to tell him that I was, but lacked to ability to articulate much of anything at all. Heavy, snow covered branches hung over the trail. I tried to duck under a couple, but that proved an impossible task so Matt would try to move them or I would just charge through. By the time we had reached the top of the pass the snow had finally stopped, but fog and a stiff wind chilled me to the bone. My left big toe was throbbing and I tried to navigate down the extremely rocky, technical, steep double track into the Cache valley. The sun rose shortly before reaching the last aid station. I didn’t even stop, in and out. Matt grabbed me some food and I continued.
I swear on my life that this same trail the day before was mostly flat. This morning the trail was proving me wrong. One big climb after another greeted me. There was no way I was going to make the time I thought possible a few hours earlier. ‘Surely this is the last hill before we hit the road and make our way to the finish line… ‘ Again and again I repeated that. Then another hill would appear.
We finally found the pavement and in a last effort to finish before 8:30, I sprinted down the hill. After a min or so Matt came trotting next to me and told me it was too late so I slowed down a bit and ran at a more manageable pace to the finish. Aaron was waiting around the corner with his camera and I made my way up the sidewalk to the finish line where all my friends were there to cheer me in.
I collapsed into a chair and someone said, “You’re third place female!.” What? How is that even possible? I could hardly believe it and I burst into tears.
I had done it. I had run 100 miles.
I will never be able to articulate the feelings I had upon completion of what would be referred to as “The Nasty Bear.” As a friend had once said to me, it is like living a lifetime in a day.
I learned a lot about myself that day.
I learned that I can do hard things.
I learned that it isn’t about running fast, but rather about staying consistent and always moving forward.
I learned that I may cry at the sight of cows, and that I prefer chocolate covered pretzels and Nutter Butters for fuel over gels and energy bars.
I learned that you can NEVER be over prepared in adverse conditions; my poles, waterproof glove protectors, amazing socks, puffy jackets, hand warmers, beenies, buffs, and gloves proved essential.
And most importantly, I learned that anything is possible when you have the love and support of friends and family, for whom I owe everything. They are the ones who made this possible. They buoyed me up. They held my hand through injury, depression, weakness, and moments of doubt. They encouraged me and they believed in me.
Without the love and patience of my dear husband Brent and the continued support from so many before, during, and after the race, I would never have believed that I could do this. And to you and all of the runners out there on the course, thank you. Bonds were forged and connections were made.
I was there when Kenzie came through the finish. I was inspired and moved by her strong fight even when she had been sidelined by the most grueling weather you could imagine. She collapsed next to me, we held each other and tears were shed. Nobody else, not even my pacers, could understand what we had just been through.
But we knew. And we would be better for it. These are the moments that shape us, smooth our rough edges. These are the moments that make us strong.
Absolutely incredible. Not just 100 miles but to come back from injury, overcome the challenges of Mother Nature and finish 3rd???? This is inspiring!
Such a great article. Thanks so much for sharing it.
I’m so proud of you Chelsea. Every time i get the chance i tell your story to whoever will listen. You give me courage to face my own obstacles and dreams.