Read the full story here!
Read the full story here!
The interminable intervals of green trees and worn farmhouses below heavyset clouds along Interstate 91 in Vermont tugged at the tears buried in my eyes. Behind them sit visions of long runs beneath 12,000 foot peaks on dry dusty eastern sierra roads when Gabe would paint pictures of his home state and mountains, “It’s so green. You’d love it Mo.” And it was, even greener than he ever made me imagine it to be. When I finally made it, I felt two weeks too late.
Exactly one year ago both Gabe and I walked off the track in Portland likely for the last time as competitive track racers. I came back from months of injury and to PR by 1/10th of a second in the 5000 meters. Gabe struggled through a 10K after weeks of lackluster training. It can always go either way. I’m not sure either of us knew we were “done done” that day, but as we walked slower than I’ve ever walked before towards the car I felt painfully aware that the stoke of chasing numbers on the clock did not mean as much to either of us as it once did. I tried my best to cheer him up, to plant seeds of summer fun, of future racing and that there is so much more in life than racing or even just running. I didn’t want to drop him off and leave him alone in his hotel room that night but he insisted and so I did. When Gabe made up his mind there was no arguing, which is why we so often fought like brother and sister in between repeats in Round Valley or before getting on the bus. No mind though, Gabe was always first to incite an apology when it felt right on his watch, the same way no run was done until he decided it was done. Which is how many of his 20 milers became 23 milers.
Gabe and I bonded over our love for the mountains and for running. Simple. Getting either of us to leave our 8,000 foot sierra sanctuary literally took an important race to push us out. Otherwise 12 months of the year we were holed up and logging miles beneath our beloved granite peaks. A distaste for leaving town left us to spend holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year with anyone else that stayed back in town. Gabe came to Mammoth not knowing how to cook a damn thing and by the first Thanksgiving could cook a whole turkey with all the fixings—and nearly eat in one setting. Stuffed to the gills we’d sit around with our teammates and write haikus. I’ll never forget the one he wrote. It wasn’t a haiku at all, but instead the genuine sentiment made me realize that our band of misfit runners and local dirtbags was truly a family. “This was the best Thanksgiving ever. I am so full. I’m so grateful for my family here in Mammoth.” I kick myself for not keeping the poems we all wrote and shared around the table as the snow fell down outside in the night sky.
Today the memories are still so real that they bombard me in real time. I can hear his voice and see his beautiful seamless stride flying around the track and down the mountain roads he loved. In between I can hardly focus on reality. I go between feeling numb and feeling everything at once. Our lives experienced upheaval from that day on the Portland track forward, just in vastly different directions. We both left Mammoth without much notice, with a feeling of needing something much different and far away from our mountains no matter how much we loved them. When Gabe and I ran together it was a safe place. Our conversations often went silly, wild, weird, deep, supportive, sad and silent. On one of our last runs together we ran past the Mammoth/Yosemite airport and piece by piece designed the ultimate new airplane that could drop each passenger off at their individual destinations. We’d have the ability to band together for a time and when we each needed to go our own way we could simply press a button, eject and take off on our own flight, our own desired course. I think this memory haunts me most because that is exactly what we did. From the original crew of runners that arrived in Mammoth in 2013 everyone has now gone their separate ways. Moves to new states. Starting new careers. Recharging running careers. Being crowned Kings of Cannabis. Getting divorced. Having babies. Gabe often expressed how hard it was to watch our family disbanding. With so much upheavel in his young life that began far far away in Ethiopia, he once told me that he wished we could all be one fucked up family together forever. When he left I could not blame him for getting out. Soon I left Mammoth too.
Gabe’s final destination, back home in Vermont with his family, would be just one of the many places I passed through in the month on June. We all have our own ways of dealing with the chaos of life, especially when it hits us in tidal waves. For me, the response seems to be to keep moving and experience as much as I possibly can, resisting the urge to get hung up on any one moment. I stared out the window letting the green flash by in a moment that would thankfully last longer than most on my two-day drive from the east coast to Colorado. Alice In Chains interjecting my thoughts, “Am I wrong? Have I run too far to get home?” In my own quest to find a space to call home, living a nomadic life on the road and constantly having to move on from places and people that I love, I contemplated the strain that type of existence likely played in Gabe’s young life. No point in analyzing now. I’ll never understand the intricacies of what Gabe was dealing with, the past that haunted him, nor the pain that he lived with.
What I will always remember are the many laughs that we shared. That he started each day in the back of the Mammoth Track Club van studying Amahric, Arabic and Spanish. The way he’d quote rap songs in between intervals to pump us up, “Nothing can stop us, we’re all the way up!” When he learned to cook with salt for the first time. Sporadic pep talks when he’d pull me aside and tell me how much potential we both had in running—that we couldn’t give up, the best was ahead. Watching him run with his powerful and graceful stride down the dirt roads of long valley or crushing an uphill tempo at 9,000 feet. His c-walking dance moves that always surprised everyone in the room. Double days taking ice baths in the creek to ensure that we were completely recovered for workouts. Listening to his stories about the other mountain areas he lived in–Vermont, Gunnison and Ethiopia.
In July I made it a point to pass through Gunnison where he went to college and earned two NCAA Titles in the 5K and 10K. Almost a month after I heard the news of his passing in Bears Ears and collapsed to the ground and yelled out into the canyons, the wounds were still raw. And along the way I had the beautiful privilege of seeing the journey that Gabe took with his running across the country to some of the most beautiful spaces imaginable. A journey that would eventually lead him to Mammoth where he would run a 2:12 marathon and 1:01 half marathon—solidifying him as one of America’s best distance runners and an Olympic hopeful.
It’s been months since I’ve been able to open up this draft. It’s Thanksgiving today, the first in my recent memory without him, and his two heaping plates of food, and away from home in our mountains. I flash back to one of the last runs we had together at Laurel Pond across from the Mammoth airport. Over the course of a brisk paced 8 miler in even brisker temperatures we hatched a vision for a “self-ejecting” plane that allowed individuals to press a button and launch themselves in flight, apart from the rest of the crew and go their own way. The way they needed. I didn’t realize fully then, and perhaps he didn’t either, that we were both about to press the button on a flight far away from the Sierras that would completely alter the course of our lives. It’s only when we are forced to let go and move on from everything we’ve ever known that we can finally blaze a path all our own.
It’s difficult for me to understand Gabe’s choice except that I never doubted him. He expressed a similar sentiment to me. Gabe ran his life on his own terms until his tank was empty. His smile and stride flash by in fleeting memories to remind me that everything can be gone in an instant, but the memories will always remain embedded on our soul. The pain of losing a dear friend still feels like Epsom salt in a blister after a long run, but with time my gratitude grows, it reminds me of what it is to live a life beyond the edges of comfort and safety. That it is better to run towards your passion until there is nothing left than to give up, or worse, never try at all. What a gift to have run this earth alongside such an incredible burst of a human. Thank you Gabe.
Afterward: It seems beyond fitting to me that Adrianna and Jeremy Nelson gave birth to their first child, Alexandra, on Thanksgiving. What a gift to bring a new spark into the universe and help give her the wings to chart her own course.
For most of this year, encompassing four seasons, I’ve lived (loosely termed as I am a nomad living out of my Jeep) in Bears Ears working on several stories and a hiking guidebook for the Colorado Mountain Club. This has given me the opportunity to intimately get to know much of the area—although I realize I am just scratching the surface as this place is so large, so vast, so intricate that locals and natives confess that it is impossible to truly know it in one’s lifetime. For many trail runners, this 1.35 million acre National Monument (designated by President Barack Obama in December 2016) rings new to the ears, however the places within it have always existed—Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, Dark Canyon, Beef Basin, Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin and the Abajo Mountains have all been recreation destinations in their own right and are now united in their protection under the umbrella of the monument.
While I humbly have infinitely more to learn about Bears Ears, below are some of the most unique, interesting, beautiful and helpful things I have learned from this place as they apply to trail running. My hope is that they enhance your trip, should you find an opportunity to visit this incredible place, and help you wrap your head around the complex area and its ever shifting current events.
What areas are included in Bears Ears? Bears Ears contains the following areas that previously were managed under various other types of public lands designations (ex Forest Service, Wilderness, BLM): Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, Dark Canyon, Abajo Mountains, Beef Basin, Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin, Valley of the gods and an unnamed island of land behind the Clay Hills. Currently they are jointly managed by the BLM and Forest Service.
Why is it a Monument?: Obama designated Bears Ears a National Monument in direct relation to the 1906 Antiquities Act (created by President Theodore Roosevelt). National Monuments are designated to protect, at the utmost level, areas that are of historical, cultural and scientific significance to the United States of America and its people. While not the only form of public lands, Monuments do not allow new drilling, mining, grazing or use permits to be granted once they are designated (but allow previous permit holders to continue their work). This explains why you are likely to see cattle during your visit to Bears Ears and even on many trails!
Current Events: This spring President Trump requested a full review of 25 National Monuments (including Bears Ears) by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, which many feared would lead to massive reductions or even rescinding Bears Ears and other monuments (the perception being that land would be opened up for drilling, mining and other exploitation). The results of his report are not promising and vague at best, most notably—suggesting an amendment to the size of Bears Ears. At the time of this story no official actions have taken place, but a recent bill has been proposed by Congressman Rob Bishop (Utah) that would potentially gut the Antiquities Act further jeopardizing the future of Bears Ears and other National Monuments.
When to go: The typical season recommended for visitors is spring and fall. Bears Ears ranges in elevation from around 3,500 feet and 11,000 feet and its temperatures and weather patterns reflect this. Winter can bring snow and freezing temps even to the canyons and desert areas, and summer (roughly July through September) is typically extremely hot and also monsoon season which brings deadly flash floods.
Trail Running: The trails in Bears Ears are primitive, unmaintained and constantly shifting thanks to flash floods, wildlife and even cattle in some areas. If you are going to Bears Ears to run, I recommend that you view it as an adventure, two-footed sightseeing rather than training. The terrain is rough, dangerous and sometimes impassable forcing you to slow down to a stop, and sometimes even crawl on all fours. There are no trail signs, and cairns are often destroyed or inaccurate. Route finding is an essential tool so have a guidebook and a map with you. While everyone’s standards of what is “runnable” terrain vary greatly, I recommend the following routes for runners:
Lower Indian Creek Trail (13.2 miles, this trail connects the Abajo Mountains in Monticello with Indian Creek—check out the incredible rock art at Newspaper Rock mid-way!)
Tuerto Canyon, Skyline Trail, Shay Ridge (These are in the Abajo Mountains and can be made into a variety of routes and loops that make over 20 mile days possible.)
Woodenshoe Canyon (This tributary of Dark Canyon is just under 15 miles one way.)
Of course Bears Ears has a TON of dirt roads giving runners of all abilities and comfort levels endless possibilities while experiencing the beauty of Bears Ears.
Know before you go!: Bears Ears is a wild and primitive place. This is not a National Park with maps, signage and rangers to assist you. Although, the Kane Gulch BLM Ranger Station can be an asset—just keep in mind that it is located in Cedar Mesa which can be several hours away on rough roads from other areas of the Monument. Make sure you have plenty of water, food and gas before you head out to any routes. Cell service hardly exists at all. If you have an accident, the nearest medical help can be a long ways away in either Monticello or Moab. Keep a close watch on the weather—a forecast for Bluff, Blanding or Monticello can be a good start but you will have to factor in vast differences in elevation and micro-climates. If you see storm clouds in the distance it is highly recommended that you avoid travel into any of the canyons.
Visit with RESPECT!: This is the most important knowledge for any trip to Bears Ears. It is essential to carefully read and practice these tips outlined by Friends Of Cedar Mesa to ensure that the delicate desert terrain and artifacts are preserved out of respect for the environment and the ancestors of the people who came here first. Much of the area is still used by tribes today for ceremonies and rituals, while archeologists continue exciting research.
Why I love Bears Ears: My first visit to Bears Ears was confusing, cold and challenging. It took me several trips to get my bearings, and ultimately I made this place my basecamp as an opportunity to fully immerse myself in its wild spaces. I love the way the light dances off the canyon walls morning and night, turning a corner and spotting a rock art panel high on an alcove, stopping to admire a tiny frog or lizard against the cracked clay earth, running from the alpine woodlands of Elk Ridge to the red sandstone walls of Dark Canyon, and the way the Bears Ears themselves are always somewhere in the distance seemingly watching over and protecting this beloved area.
I sat in the dingy bowling alley, neon lights shining down on me as I ate a slice of greasy pizza that was no match for the sweat dripping down my face. I took a deep breath, tilted back my black felt hat and signed my name across the dotted line ignoring fear of commitment, the unknown, political version, misdirection, solitude. I’m writing a book. At first the thought processed only in my head, reminding me that I actually needed to get to work. I dashed to the bathroom–my last chance in civilization preceding my next round of holing up in the primitive world of Bears Ears National Monument–I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I’m writing a book!” I skipped out of the gas station with my backpack on and high stepped my filthy moccasin boots into the dirt yellow colored Jeep. It was time to go home and work.
At 2 pm I reached the canyon trail head–not the ideal time to start a backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, let alone my crazed attempt to run the route and get back to the Jeep before dark. But this was my story, my guidebook, my rules. I pulled my food bin from the trunk, unrolled a flour tortilla, popped a can of black beans and smothered it in ketchup. For insurance purposes I twisted open a can of pickles, the sweet kind, ate a few from the jar and took a shot of the juice. No cramps for me in this desert heat.
I bopped down the trail as four backpackers–the only people I would see all day–trudged back to their car in disbelief. Maybe it was the running or the late start? But if I told them I was writing magazine stories, a book, training for the Mountain Running National Championships and living out of my Jeep on public lands they would not believe me anyways. I smiled at the strangeness of the confluence of such a wild life finding such a feral creature like me and tuned my eyes to focus mode–there were turns to make, ruins to spot, plants to identify, photos to take and mileage to get in.
Despite my life’s goal being to write books, taking on a guidebook to the Best Hikes in Bears Ears National Monument was not the first large scale project that I envisioned. Not only does the task include large volumes of writing (the easiest part for me), but requires providing accurate directions, taking hundreds of beautiful photos in the field and MAKING THE FREAKING MAPS. The latter terrified me most but also sold me on the project–I’m finally becoming a real explorer.
The book also came with much trepidation in many arenas. It is a HUGE responsibility. It is controversial. It is a massive area (1.35 million acres). It is sacred. My initial thoughts were uncharacteristically insecure–everyone hates the people that write guidebooks. It is looked upon in some circles of wilderness dwellers and seekers as not just giving away, but selling, the treasure map. I wrestled with this nightmarish belief for a month. It was not until I talked to my friend and archaeologist RE Burrillo (who admittedly is not a HUGE fan of guidebooks), that to protect the historical, cultural and natural resources of such a delicate area the public must be directed properly. And for the Monument to stand on its own legs visitors must be able to experience and explore it safely. Lastly, someone is going to write books like this anyways–if I do it I have the opportunity to do it sustainably and consult the researchers and tribal council members to ensure that it is completed in such a way that shares the beauty of Bears Ears with the world in a way that protects what is sacred and conserves the area for generations to come.
Fortunately thoughts like this rarely last in my head and the contract was signed. Spend enough time in solitude crawling around the desert and you become deeply in tune with the self deep inside your soul that is not influenced by the outside human world (but never write off the moon, oh the moon will speak, sing, shake and stir your soul endlessly). By the end of May half a dozen of the 20+ routes I need to put together were completed. These routes all coincided with my unorthodox training for the US Mountain Running Championships (I placed 14th), completing a story and photos for Trail Runner Magazine (September Public Lands issue is out now), various photo assignments and finally seeing my story for REI, focused on my personal healing process associated with the cultural rituals of the tribes fighting to protect this area, go to press.
The book, being published through Mountaineer Books for the Colorado Mountain Club, is available for pre-order now. It gives me tremendous pride knowing that this book will provide knowledge and access for the public to experience such a beautiful place that is not the most intuitive. At over 1.35 million acres Bears Ears is primitive (no amenities, no cell service, no marked/signed routes), but it IS worth a visit. Whether traveling to this National Monument is on your road trip hit list or not, it is my hope that this book is a joy for anyone looking for a glimpse into one of this country’s crown jewels. From deep, narrow and winding canyons, red rock cliff dwellings, ancient rock art, 11,000 foot mountains, world-class crack and desert tower climbing, micro-climates and panoramic vistas of the four corners region Bears Ears encapsulates that magic of the Southwest unlike anywhere else in the world.
My most daunting tasks forging routes, taking photos, getting my mapping on and researching the history and ecology are ahead of me. The manuscript is due as soon as possible (again, this is not your average book deal–this IS an adventure) in order to make a release date in very early 2018. The weather right now is total shit in the canyons (hot as hell, flash flooding, biting flies), giving me a narrow window during the peak fall season to complete the project. I am thrilled to share this journey with my fellow readers, explorers, defenders of wild spaces, runners, hikers, wanders and the ancient ones who clearly still dwell among the majesty of Bears Ears, the Changing Bear Maiden. I am humbled and grateful to be given the opportunity to use my voice and vision to share and protect it.
“We just have to run 20, 30 or 50 miles a day over some mountains. What could go wrong?”
When I received my itinerary from Jenn Shelton to run the Tour du Mont Blanc, I took a hard swallow of quickly drying saliva, knowing that my background as a middle-distance track racer (specializing in the 5K) would not prepare me for the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc which passes through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) and gains 30,000 feet of elevation in the technical terrain of the Alps. While I lacked the typical preparations needed for a through-trail run of this magnitude—I don’t run 105 miles in a full week let alone four days—my stoke to explore a new mountain range was high, as was my willingness to hop on a plane to Chamonix and prepare myself for the biggest run of my life with just five day’s notice.
Granted, this particular method did not help me or my running compatriots, Jenn and photographer Andrew Burr, actually finish the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it proved effective enough to help me run farther than I ever thought imaginable in three short days, despite torrential downpours, wrong turns, snowy mountain passes and minor injuries. While it’s no scientific formula or rule book by any means, the Disaster Training Plan will help prepare you (mostly mentally) for maximum adventure and “fun” when you have the urge to take on something way beyond your current fitness, perceived ability or experience level. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or an ultramarathoner to complete an epic multiday trail run—you just have to be crazy enough to say yes and accept the inevitable beat down that will happen to you along the way.
Every runner knows that with less than a week until your event the only thing left to do is taper (to rest your body), carbo load and hydrate. I took this very seriously in the days before taking on the TMB—with an “easy run” straight up the vertical K in Chamonix “just to get a coffee.” Another option is to just lay in the grass and stare up at Mont Blanc as you study the guidebook. Individual definitions of the chill pill may vary. The result (hopefully): feeling in tip-top condition on the first day, so you have a true baseline of just how hard you will run yourself into the ground.
If you are using the Disaster Training Plan, you are already a glutton for punishment so don’t make it worse by bringing anything unnecessary in your pack that will weigh you down. I carried my trusty M10 Jacket, Houdini Pants, Nano Air Jacket, extra socks, water and lots of snacks. Bottles of rosé are important. Don’t forget those. They quickly help you forget about that next 5,000-foot climb up ahead.
Ready, Set, Hike
On game day, we set a not-so-strict start time of 9 a.m. and took off … at walking pace. This confused the hell out of me because in track I run fast, not slow, and walking is not even in my forward motion vocabulary. However, I learned this strategy will save your legs for the long mountainous stretches of trail in the days to come. Three days later I sang the praises of the stage one “Tour of Sidewalking” as I crawled, exhausted, shivering and with trench foot, up two 5,000-foot Italian mountain passes in a massive rain/sleet/snow storm. I will never scoff at the notion of walking ever again.
On long days, make sure you are eating plenty of real foods—things like spaghetti and meatballs, beer (yes, that’s a food group), candy, Nutella and hard-boiled eggs. There is no science behind this. You have two options in the disaster plan: Eat what tastes good or eat what is available. A soggy tuna sandwich can quickly become both when you are lost in Italy with many hours of running ahead of you over yet another mountain pass.
Shake It Out
When you complete a section of a multiday adventure, don’t immediately sit down and start drinking wine. Open the bottle and stretch it out. A bit of active recovery in the form of yoga, light walking, medieval sword fighting or even dancing will help keep your blood circulating and your muscles from cramping up. Remember: You’re not done yet, so don’t act like it.
Read the Maps, Guidebooks and Signs
You’re already going much farther than you have any business going. Don’t screw it up with a wrong turn and make your day exponentially longer. Of course, this is the disaster plan and you likely didn’t even take weather conditions into consideration before you started. All it takes is one heinous storm of slashing rain to leave your map in less-than-useful condition and the signs impossible to find through the mashed potato thick fog. When this happens don’t forget to smile and find other uses for it like toilet paper, tissue or even a rain hat.
Expect the Unexpected
When the Disaster Training Plan is followed properly, you will have a distinct advantage over your fully trained compatriots: no preconceived expectations. Even the most skilled, talented and prepared adventurers will face challenges and major obstacles, but a bold soul like you expects this and therefore is much more resilient in the face of adversity. It’s what you signed up for. When disaster strikes you will furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment.
Heart Trumps Training
The mental training required to complete a big mountain mission can’t be overlooked. Andrew—a climber who admittedly did not run more than six miles (ever) before the TMB—is likely an alien or has magic powers, but he swears that he is able to keep pace with professional runners (all while carrying heavy camera equipment) because of his mental game, “If you love adventure, you have to be able to turn your brain off and enjoy the suffering part of the process.” So yeah, it’s going to hurt. Deal with it.
Accept Failure and Enjoy the Journey
Some rad dude (Yvon Chouinard) once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Disciples of the Disaster Training Plan are seeking just that. You didn’t jump on this trail to get a finishers medal or set a Strava record. This is a transformative experience. One that will break you down to nothing more than your underwear (because your clothes are permanently soaked) as you eat yet another plate of pasta at an Italian refugio while the rain beats down upon the tin roof. You will wonder how you will take one more step, but you go on anyways because you have no choice—the nearest train station is an entire country away over, yes, another mountain pass. However, the Disaster Training Plan does not discourage making the bail-out option your new goal. Sitting through a marathon travel day of hitchhiking, plus multiple trains and buses, in your rain- and cow-shit-soaked clothing is a right of passage all its own.
Be Willing to Recover
Don’t expect to walk away from this game plan in one piece. Afterwards, you will drink whiskey. You will need ibuprofen. You will buy cheap frozen peas to reduce the swelling. Your ass will be laid up on the couch. You will elevate your swollen limbs. But you will accept and ingest all of this with a twisted smile on your face basking in the glow of proving the naysayers (most likely your own body parts) wrong.
While the Disaster Training Plan may not leave you fully ready for the heinous slog you are about to begin, it will save you from the worst type of agony possible: the regret of not even trying. At the very least you will always have a cool bar story, and maybe a few battle wounds, but more than likely you will uncover a piece of yourself that can only be found deep in the wilderness while traveling under the power of your own motor along the edge of a path unknown.
Morgan (“Mo”) Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with running shoes and a pen. A lifelong competitive runner, Mo is a newcomer on the trail and mountain racing scene. She currently lives out of her Jeep Wrangler at the best trailheads all over the western United States.
The mountains strengthened her legs, lungs heart. But the desert, it strengthened her soul. It’s silence sang loudly and it’s dirt danced wildly around her. The one place the kept calling her back.
She cracked open the windows and let the summer rain inside and set her spirit free. There were burritos to make…
A few attempted cracks of the beer cap on the ephemeral sandstone rock saluted the world of open freedom. There was nowhere to go but a place as still as this one allowing a whirlwind within to unlock the magic.
I didn’t even come to Silverton to watch Hardrock 100.
It was 3 am on Saturday morning and as I hiked in the dark through frigid streams carrying two packs filled with aid station supplies, half a dozen mashed potato burritos, a bivvy sack and my ultra-light backpacking coffee maker the only thing that made sense to me was that I finally lost my mind. But then again, I love this shit. –>Mo randomly drives to small mountain town, immediately makes new friends, gets sucked into a new adventure.<–When I arrived at the alpine aid station I bypassed the 5 people strewn between the media tent and a meager campfire and walked over to some tall grass. I pulled out my bivvy, took off my wet shoes and crawled in for what I hoped might be some semblance of a nap.
“Did somebody say Jamil?” I sat up upright and attentive as if I never slept a wink (does 10 minutes count?) Gina (Lucrezi) laughed, “I said for real.” Oh well, awake as can be I decided to trust my instincts and stay awake for game time. After all, at 83 miles into the race Jamil Coury nor his pacer Mike Versteeg could afford to miss any of the precious supplies I had pack-muled from Ophir up through the woods.
Ask any trail/mountain/ultra runner about the holy grail of races and Hardrock 100 will ALWAYS make the list. Sure I’ve heard of the event before but, being so very new to this sector of running, I never knew what it actually meant–the 33,000 feet of vert, the week long party the precedes the race (including not one but TWO beer miles), the insane lottery system that makes getting an entry tougher than even covering the 100 miles of mostly alpine terrain between 9,300 and 14,000+ feet elevation. Basically as a former middle distance runner this event flew off my radar into the category of bat shit crazy.
My original game plan in Silverton, Colorado was to spend the month of July training high and living simply to get ready for the Kendall Mountain Race on July 22nd. I signed up for the race in February not even knowing that the event climbs up (and back down) a 13er. Clearly I live by the philosophy that ignorance is bliss…or perhaps I know better and there is no use planning too much because the wild life constantly chooses me and I simply need to always be at the ready to roll with it. Anyways, in the spring I interviewed Kendall Mountain race director Jamil Coury for a story I wrote for REI about his affinity for mashed potato burritos during races. Fast forward to July 13th (Hardrock Eve) and I was making a mountain of the burritos, like a dirtbag catering service, and prepping to crew (solo) my first 100 ever for someone I just met. How the sun and moon aligned for this to happen is a story for another time, but between my expertise at making cold burritos, crewing my Mom for extreme cycling races in the mountains and my spontaneous nature I knew I was the right woman for the job.
The day began with a pre-dawn wake up call to load up the supplies (a dozen mashed potato burritos, a plethora of Gu’s new toasted Marshmallow gel, NuttZo, Mas Korima cookies and last minute searches for Salomon soft flasks), walking “all the way” across town to the start and then watching 150 runners embark on their 100 mile journey. I hit the road to the first aid station, Cunningham at mile 9, and enjoyed the sunrise amongst many friends I’ve made in the running world which is something I appreciate most in this sport–no matter where I go I have some crazy family members to hang with. Case in point, immediately after Jamil passed through the station in 65th and took burrito #1 I hit the road with Celia from Gu and filmmaker Billy Yang to cook up a breakfast feast. Once properly stuffed I traded Scott Johnston/Uphill Athlete workout war stories with Luke Nelson and then pranced off on a run with Clare Gallagher. By the time I returned it was time to wake pacer number 1 up from his hangover inside his house (aka Van) and hit the road to the mile 43 aid station at Grouse.
In no danger of being late to resupply and link up with our runner, Mike and I found ourselves in a crash course of getting to know each other as we avoided the rain for four hours sitting inside the Jeep as my yellow caravan quickly became the social hub of the entire aid station. As everyone else convened around the Jeep while getting soaking wet, Mike and I stayed dry and entertained with a few rounds of Hangman, I spy, knife wielding dance parties, beer, yelling at one-armed monster Kilian Jornet, creating a support group AND a reality TV show. If anyone can handle tight quarters like these it’s two 30 year old dirtbags living out of their vehicles. Hours later game time arrived. Mike pranced down the road to join Jamil in 25th position while I set up a burrito buffet with enough snacks to get him Ouray.
Already 4pm I stopped in town to pick up a pizza and then hit the Million Dollar Highway to the next aid stop. I quickly realized how much driving crewing a 100 miler involved but I figured it would be a great way for me to get to know the new hood since I plan to hang around here for a while. Once in Ouray I linked up with pacer #2, Schuyler Hall to help him warm up properly for his leg of the journey with some track drills. Jamil ran into the park, still freaking smiling, swapped some gear and loaded up another burrito. Listening to his stories about running through hail storms and over 14ers all day made me really wish I had opted to pace him and prance around in meadows singing songs, laughing and telling stories together, but then I reverted my brain back to business mode–someone has to be the bearer of burritos after all.
Schuyler and Jamil hit the trail while Mike and I jumped in the Jeep and fought the urge to fall asleep en route to Telluride by blasting a mix of 2 Chainz and Queens Of The Stone Age.
Once at the next aid station we figured we had a few hours to spare and catch some sleep. It took a while for the adrenaline rush of driving under the influence of exhaustion to ware off and we maximized the loopiness by igniting the next super athlete fan craze–#KilianingIt. It was hysterical for 5 minutes for us at least, then we cracked open some Sufferfest beers and promptly passed out (with them in hand and still mostly full) in the park grass like the hobos we actually are.
At home in my element (on the ground outside) I felt as though I actually fell asleep, but it probably was not more than 10 minutes before I got a call from Jamil’s sister that he was nearing town. I doubted it (because at 1 am that would mean he was an hour ahead of pace from the last station) but I walked over to the staging area in my delirium to scope it out. 5 minutes later I turned around and there was Jamil sprinting, now in 8th place. Oh shit. I faked being awake and coherent, threw open his bag, spread out all the snacks onto the ground, tucked another burrito into his pack and started running back to the grass to wake up Mike who actually didn’t believe me that Jamil arrived. Despite being a less than organized crew it all came together, also likely because Jamil is both a super relaxed person and is a total 100 miler pro who does other totally mad races like Barkley. Before Jamil took off he looked at me and in a very serious tone asked, “See you in Ohpir?” Yeah, fuck being tired. I clearly had my most important mission of the night ahead of me.
Despite drinking one of Jamil’s drop bag Monster energy drinks (the first of my life–disgusting), I made a few wrong turns on the drive delaying my arrival in Ohpir for a night hike and forest nap. I grabbed Jamil’s duffel bag (now not only stuffed with fuel, but also dirty wet socks, camera gear and even a bedazzled white dress shirt which I wore to simply celebrate its strange existance) in addition to the official burrito-pack (also containing my bivvy sack and emergency coffee supplies). Again, I didn’t sleep much (10 minutes max) and when Jamil and Mike ran in it was a very different scene than the previous 83 miles. Jamil was in good spirits, but clearly tired ( I wonder why) and nauseous. The goal of the next 30 minutes–keep him awake (his Achilles heel in long races) and make him eat. He asked me to tell him about my day (probably the last thing I expected someone in this stage of racing to request), so I told lots of silly stories while he choked down some vegan ramen and charged his Suunto watch (which would later cause a serious wrist injury–his only ache from this entire ordeal).
Because I am a competitor by nature and a team player (#TeamMashedPotatoBurrito) here I made a deal with the devil to boost morale–no more naps for me if he promised not to nap. I would stay awake through the night AND even run my hill interval workout on Kendall Mountain before he finished to suffer ever so slightly in solidarity. He took off running into the night with Mike and I immediately questioned my sanity as I hiked back over the rivers and through the woods to the Jeep as the sun rose over the stunning peaks surrounding me.
As it turns out Jamil still had several more hours of running ahead of him and no more requests for me to deliver the burritos, so I ate one. Even over 24 hours later and a bit soggy it was delicious.
I took off to Kendall and somehow hammered out an amazing workout. I looked over the road at the stunning vistas and let my imagination drift off and envision myself racing up the wild and tough peaks and valleys of Hardrock. WTF is wrong with me? Is this was over 24 hours of sleep deprivation does to you or am I really thinking I’ll race 100 miles someday? High above the town of Silverton I faced a truth I have always known since I was a little kid–I want to run and romp and eat snacks in the mountains all day and never have to go back inside (which is why I live in my Jeep). I also love to race. Crewing for this race was far from random, far from planting a seed. I unlocked a truth and a dream from deep within me that I was never ready to look at, let alone nurture until now. Just two weeks before I walked down the main street of Silverton with the strange feeling of arriving, like a homecoming, and this was it.
As the clock marched into the 29th hour we got word that Jamil was closing in on the finish. This would be a massive PR, his first top 10 finish and a huge personal victory for him after a challenging year with less than optimal training. Sure, everyone wants to be on a team with a winner, but this is the kind of shit I live for. A team of burrito eating misfits digging deep to squeeze out the best experience possible during a deranged sufferfest in the mountains. Jamil’s smile boldly stated all of this as he literally sprinted in towards the finish line towards his son and ran the final 100 meters with him in hand before kissing the coveted rock.
Post-race Team Mashed Potato Burrito sat in a stooper in an alcove just off the road. We drank gin from a flask delivered by one of Mike’s groupies and traded more stories from the last 29 hours of life that seemed to be both infinite and pass by in a flash. And yes, we did finally take a looooong nap (6 hours) followed by a unanimous decision to get our grub on with, you guessed it, another burrito.