I registered for this race because I wanted an opportunity to run a fast 100 miler. Don't get me wrong, I love running the mountain 100's, but I was curious how a flat race would go. As it turns out, even a flat 100 miler hurts like hell. Maybe even more than a mountain race. Scratch that...it definitely hurts more than a mountain race*.
*Disclamier: Every race you've just finished is the hardest race you've ever run. It's Runner Law. Deal with it.
Another Cool Buckle!
The Pony Express 100 is unique because it follows dirt and gravel roads for the ENTIRE distance. What was once the Pony Express Trail, is now a roadway that cuts through the desert. Another unique feature is the total absence of aid stations. Aid can be found at mile 48, but beyond that, you're on your own. However, because we're running on a road, our crew can follow the course and set up personalized aid stations at whatever intervals we want. As a runner, I loved this concept. As a crew member, it meant much more work for Jo than she would normally encounter while crewing one of my 100 mile races. As long as the runner is happy and healthy, it's all good though! (Jo didn't think that was funny)
I had spent countless hours thinking about this race because I wanted to post a fast time. Fast for me meant sub 19 hours. I studied the course, logistics, but mostly the competition. I reviewed the entry list and studied each runner in the 100 mile race. I narrowed the list of "fast guys" down to three, excluding myself. I decided the guys to watch would be Matt Van Horn, Mark Harmon and Phil Lowry. All three are people that I was at least mildly familiar with and I knew any of them could potentially win the race. Winning would be a long shot for me, but a podium finish seemed to be a reasonable goal. Assuming...well, assuming a lot of things, but it was my goal nonetheless.
The race director, Davy Crockett, starts the race in four waves, beginning at 5:00 AM, with the final wave getting underway at 8:00 AM. This is designed to reduce vehicle congestion as crews navigate the course to care for their runners. Runners are seeded according to their anticipated finish time. The fastest runners go out last. That was my wave.
My strategy was simple. I planned to go out slow and easy to conserve energy, then spend the day tracking the fast runners and eventually work my way past them during the night.
When the race started, I jumped off the line and found myself all alone.
This was not going well at all!
Leading at the Start. Not my Intention!
I panicked right away. I hate leading races and all I wanted was a couple of runners in front of me. I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping to see a gang of people trying to pass me. Nobody was there. Crap, crap crap! I was trying to will these guys to get up front. Nothing. I slowed down a little. Still nobody appeared. I thought about pretending to stop to tie my shoe, but that seemed lame, so I kept running.
The Sign that Nobody Paid Attention to!
I had arranged for Jo to meet me at mile 4. I had started without any fuel or hydration and wanted to get a handheld and some Hammer peanut butter gel, while getting rid of my light jacket. Just as we approached my crew vehicle, Matt Van Horn and Mark Hammond passed me. Whew!!! The pressure was instantly gone. I handed off my jacket, grabbed a bottle and gel flask, then I was off.
I asked Jo to travel 1 mile up the road so I could hand off my gel flask. This was the rythym that we fell into. Meet me every 4 miles, then again 1 mile up from that to get trash, flasks, or bottles from me. I almost never stopped moving.
A View of the Course in the Morning
Now that Matt and Mark were ahead of me, I was able to settle in and enjoy myself. The Utah desert has a unique beauty and I was enjoying the run. The temperature was ideal for the race and I was feeling really good.
Mile 8, Moving Strong
Somewhere around mile 14 or 15, I began to pass runners from earlier waves. Most of these people looked happy and were in good spirits. They were just enjoying their private adventure on the Pony Express Trail. I was envious of their perspective.
Coming in to Simpson Springs, Mile 16
Simpson Springs was our first check point, and also where the 100 mile race would eventually finish. We left the road, checked in and headed back out.
On the way out of the check point, I met up with Kendall Wimmer and we ran together, discussing his race. Kendall was the current 50 mile leader and was having a good day, but he was being pursued and he knew it. Kendall and I met at the Bear 100 a few weeks earlier and finished that race side by side. He helped me get to the finish of that race and is one of the coolest guys I know. After a half mile of jabbering, he pulled away and continued on, while keeping an eye on his pursuer.
"Go down this road for a while. Then keep going. And after that, just keep going straight. When you see the mountain in the distance, just keep going straight."
Pony Express is tough because you can see FOREVER! There's no mystery to this course. The field is spread out, there's no hope of casual conversation with other runners. Mentally...it's grueling!
My BFF at Pony Express!
The Ultra-Mobile in Action!
At around mile 20, I was beginning to get warm. It was probably only 45 degrees, but my pace was pretty brisk and I was heating up. Also, the direct sunlight in the desert made it seem warmer than it was.
20 Miles and in my Groove
Mark Hammond and I had been swapping positions for several miles and it appeared he was beginning to fade, and possibly having some trouble. We exchanged greetings every time we passed each other and I was enjoying this part of the race and the bit of competition between us.
I had also been monitoring the traffic further back and knew that Phil was stalking me. I was catching random glimpses of him all morning and I suspected he may be looking to make a pass eventually. I was hoping he would.
Near Mile 24
Wild Ponies on the Course
Photo Courtesy of Tara Moreland
Phil eventually got close to me near Dugway Topaz Well. When I stopped to get aid from Jo, I let him pass me and we exchanged a wave and a smile. I like Phil a lot and he's an amazing runner. He's also now my carrot.
Phil at Mile 30
I hadn't seen Mark for several miles and assumed he dropped back or dropped out. Barring any black horse runners from earlier waves, I knew Matt was leading, Phil was in 2nd and I was in 3rd. This was an ideal spot for me to be in at this point in the race. I was sure I couldn't catch Matt unless he blew up, but I could ride behind Phil for the next 30 miles and see how things went. So I settled in and kept Phil in sight...barely in sight.
Dugway Topaz Well is our second checkpoint and is located at mile 33. It's nothing more than a card table and electronics sitting in the ditch along the road with a couple of volunteers to check numbers as we file by. I don't know what I was expecting, but this wasn't it.
Shortly after the checkpoint, we began our only major climb of the race. A long grinding uphill that takes us over Dugway pass and I was happy to see it. After 37 miles, it was a blessing to have a chance to use other muscle groups. I made it up the pass swiftly, keeping Phil in my sights.
Dugway Pass Looking Back Toward the Start
Let me tell you something about Phillip Lowry. This dude has over 60 ultras under his belt and at least half of them are 100 milers. On top of that, more than half of those are the Wasatch Front 100. Keeping Phil in eyesight isn't exactly easy. This guy can roll through the miles.
Phil held on to 2nd place...and I kept stalking. Sometimes, I got close to him and was tempted to pass, but backed off. I wanted to take my time and conserve energy. With a guy like Phil, I don't want to pass him, only to have him pass me later. It was still early and we weren't in a hurry.
Phil Making it Look Easy
Around mile 40, I began to have some pretty serious chaffing issues. After 3 years of running in the same type of shorts, I bit the bullet and tried something new. After a few long runs, they seemed great. But none of my long runs went quite this far. Now they weren't so great. This led me to hop into the crew vehicle all too frequently to adjust, add body glide and to check for permanent damage.
For those of you that run LONG distances, you know chaffing only happens in the most sensitive parts of your body. I was worried...I use all those parts with some regularity and would like them to be fully functional.
Get your mind out of the gutter!
I was looking forward to coming into Blackrock Station at mile 48 because this is the only aid station on the course and the BBQ would be fired up. They promised portobello mushroom sandwiches and that sounded about perfect. Jo met me at the aid station, handed me my Hammer gel and Endurolyte Fizz and I rolled out while she tended to acquiring my sandwich.
Heading Out at Blackrock
As I was leaving Blackrock, I could see Phil right in front of me and I sped up to close the gap. I decided I was going to pass him, or at least catch him and chat for 50 miles or so.
But there was a quick intervention...
Jo pulled up alongside and parked the truck so she could feed me my sandwich. Before I took my first bite, I nodded toward Phil and said, "There's Phil, should I pass him?" Jo reminded me that I acted like an ass at the race start and I might want to consider taking it easy for another 30 or 40 miles. I looked back at Phil, then to Jo....then back at Phil...and grudgingly agreed. Passing him this early could be a huge mistake. I finished the most delicious sandwich I ever ate (quite seriously) and headed down the "trail".
Entering Fish Springs
Fish Springs marks our turnaround at mile 58 and I was excited to get there. I was still running well and was happy that the sun starting to drop in the sky. I knew my best running would come at night.
Entering the Wildlife Refuge at Fish Springs
Jo stopped at mile 56 to crew for me and planned to stay there until I returned. This was another stop that required some time and attention to my chafing. As I was in the back seat of my truck, shorts around my ankles and my hands full of body glide, I saw Matt Van Horn fly by my window, heading back toward the finish. CRAP! I looked at my watch and it was 5:11 PM, meaning he was at mile 60 in just over 9 hours!
This is when I knew it would be futile to chase Matt, assuming I ever managed to get around Phil. Why do fast people always show up at the same races I run? Frustrating...
On the way into Fish Springs I planned to count the runners that were headed back out. This was easy. It was just Phil and one runner from the 7:00 AM wave. Me, Matt and Phil had passed every other 100 mile runner on the course, except one, even though we started last.
I checked in at Fish Springs, turned on my heels and headed out without delay.
Sun Dropping Low
Coming out of Fish Springs, Heading Home
The sun was setting fast and I was getting amped up. The cooler weather was going to make everything a little easier and now that I was on my way back, there was no need to repeat the scenery, so the darkness was welcome.
Mile 62, Rocking Out to Bieber... Not Really.
Light Fading in the Desert
My next major milestone was getting back to Blackrock at mile 68. The sun was setting fast and darkness was enveloping the desert. The temperature was dropping but still comfortable. I knew this was going to be a good night for running.
Still Running Strong Into the Night
Beautiful Utah Desert
We were running under a full moon and it was throwing off enough light that my headlamp wasn't needed. I wore it in case I needed to warn oncoming cars of my presence, but otherwise, it was off.
I loved the feeling of running in total solitude in the desert at night. The stars were bright and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The full moon was brilliant, the weather was perfect and I was running with renewed enthusiasm. These were my finest miles in the race.
What the Moon Looked Like
What I Saw
When I was approaching Blackrock at mile 68, I was catching the occasional glimpse of Phil in crew headlights up ahead. Every time I saw him, he was a little closer. I started to plan my next move.
When I entered Blackrock, I saw Phil leaving the aid station table but didn't pay much attention to it. I got some things from Jo and noticed that Phil was heavily engaged with his crew. I realized this was my chance to get passed him without a battle and I headed out. In a hurry.
I bolted from the aid station and was spinning a sub 8 minute pace. I wanted to put distance on everybody behind me and felt like I had plenty of energy to do it. I met Jo 4 miles down the road, made a quick exchange of bottles, and resumed my pace.
I ran at that pace for 7 miles. I was a man on a mission.
I knew I was in 2nd place, but I also knew Phil could come after me and take it back. I wanted to create so much space that it would be a less than tempting idea.
I climbed Dugway Pass, running most of it, and my paranoia really began to set in.
When I descended the pass, I began to hear people talking and was sure I was being followed. When I entered the long straight stretches, I could see lights behind and was sure they were runners coming after me. These exhaustion fueled thoughts urged me on. I was literally running from ghosts.
Every noise and movement behind me was a threat. I was 85 miles into the race and was still running a sub 10 minute pace. Fear and adrenaline do amazing things.
At mile 90, I heard a soft "whooshing" sound coming out of the desert. I stopped running and listened, turning my ear in the direction of the noise. It was growing closer and becoming louder. I could tell it was moving fast, but I had no idea what it was. Obviously, because Phil is an Army officer, I assumed he called in a drone strike to take me out. After a few seconds I could see a black mass flying above me, low to the ground. As it passed over me, I realized it was a massive flock of birds. That makes sense, right? A HUGE flock of birds, flying quietly at night through the desert? I'm not 100% certain that any of those things actually happened.
I pushed on.
I met Jo at mile 94. I was done eating and drinking. I handed her my bottles and my iPod and debated on where I wanted to meet her again. I was tempted to have her go all the way to finish so she could finally rest, but decided to split the distance and have her meet me at mile 97. Things were getting goofy with my brain, so it was probably a good call. Plus, I wanted her to keep an eye out for any potential drone strikes. I may need backup.
By the time we met at mile 97, I was nearing a state of total insanity. We barely spoke and I told her to meet me at the finish. With the drones flying around and the people whispering in the bushes, this was no longer a safe place for her anyway.
I was no longer running a 10 minute pace but I didn't care. I was just headed to the finish, shuffling along, but still running. I was happy for that at least.
I found the lights that led me to the turn for the finish, glanced at my watch and realized I might get a 100 mile PR. Maybe...and if I did, it would be close.
The finish takes us down a rocky, rutted road and I was having issues with footing. Even in my depleted state, I realized how ridiculous that was. It wasn't "technical" but after running 100 miles on a nice, graded surface, this section seemed intense. I laughed at my own helplessness.
I flashed my headlamp as I approached the finish line so I could alert Jo and Davy that I was coming. I ran across a short length of flagging tape that marked the finish and stopped.
Finished in 18:02:57
This was a 100 mile PR by 3 minutes (Rocky Raccoon), a 2nd place finish and the 4th fastest time ever recorded at the Pony Express Trail 100. Matt Van Horn beat me by over an hour and claimed a well deserved victory.
Aside from the first few miles of the race, I felt like I ran smart, fueled properly with my Hammer Nutrition products and managed my race well, despite a few temporary moments of insanity, which may eventually wear off.
I want to thank my loyal crew chief and wife, Jo Agnew, for taking such great care of me, as well as Hammer Nutrition for all their support. I could never do these things without the people that have an interest in my success and well being.
Jo and I are headed to Arizona next weekend to run the Javelina Jundred, which is always a favorite race and an amazing time. Back to back 100 milers seemed like a good idea at the time, so we'll see how all that plays out.
Thanks to everyone for all the love and support. I hope to see many of you on the trails soon!