IMTUF 100 Race Report: 100 miles of running and more
Although seven months have past since race day, the scenes and experiences I left Idaho with will continue to be a part of me indefinitely. There is nothing glamorous or reasonable about running 100 miles in a single effort. The physical endurance required is surpassed only by the powerful emotions which spontaneously rise to the surface at any given moment. Hours fly by at times while minutes drag on at other times. For me, the 100-mile distance has taught me humility, patience, and the power of companionship. Below is an overdue recap of a very memorable weekend spent in the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho in the fall of 2016.
At 5:55 am on a dark, cloudy, cool fall morning, I stood on the start line of the IMTUF 100. I recalled standing on the exact same start line in 2014; a year I did not see the finish line due to unrelenting nausea and vomiting which began at mile 64 and continued through the night until I dropped at mile 88. The 100+ mile course route was run in a clockwise direction in 2016. I was determined to finish the job in 2016, but I would not do so alone, or would I?
The Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival (IMTUF) 100-mile race took place on September 17-18. The race begins and ends at Burgdorf Hot Springs which is reportedly the oldest known “resort” in Idaho. A rustic, beautiful valley setting surrounded by tall pines and peaks of the Salmon River Mountains (Payette National Forest), Burgdorf Hot Springs is located approximately twenty miles north of McCall, Idaho. The primitive log cabins, out buildings, and pebble-floored hot springs pool seemed eerily similar to how they likely were in the late 1800s when Burgdorf Hot Springs was established.
I struggle to put into words what it felt like to stand chilled at the start line. My excitement to begin the race is dampened by the foreboding reality of the task at hand. The race boasts 23,000 feet of climbing in the remote mountains of central Idaho. An elk bugle signaled the start of the race, and approximately 100 runners headed into the pre-dawn darkness. The mass of bouncing headlamp lights soon gave way to small groups of runners. Some groups were full of chatter, while I tend to listen and look at the surrounding shadowed scenery without tripping. The early miles rolled by as purple-orange skies illuminated the washed granite peaks around us. It felt good to move as my muscles slowly warmed, allowing me to settle into a comfortable rhythm I felt I could sustain for hours and hours.
Two weeks earlier I had raced The Rut 28k, a challenging Sky Running mountain race held in Big Sky, Montana. A tumble on the Headwaters Ridge descent left my knees scraped and a bruise on my right patella tendon. I ran very little after The Rut in preparation for the IMTUF 100, so by mile 25 I was feeling stiffness and pain secondary to my fall. My left patella tendon felt stiff and sore with every stride as I descended from the first major climb of the race. By the time I reached the mile 33 aid station at Upper Payette Lake, I was felt my day might be over. I explained my predicament to Allison (my crew member extraordinaire) who quickly handed me three Ibuprofen. I expressed my reluctance to mask my symptoms with Ibuprofen (and potentially put my kidneys at risk), but she bluntly replied: “Well, what else are you going to do? Drop out?” I swallowed the Ibuprofen and chased it with a gulp of water.
Heading out of Upper Payette Lake before noon, I began running with Missoula friends Josh and Kiefer to distract me from my knee soreness and run at a conservative pace. I have a well-earned reputation of “going out too fast” during 50+ mile races. Early fatigue is a sure way not to reach to finish line. The presence of Josh and Kiefer was the first of many fortunate events I would encounter during the IMTUF 100. Josh was running his first 100 miler and he had picked a challenging race for sure. Kiefer was determined to run with Josh the entire race, which was an incredibly selfless gesture. A phenomenal runner himself, Kiefer provided the brains in our trio. The ensuing 50 miles I shared with Josh and Kiefer were the highlight of the race.
By 1:00 pm the rain showers began. As a former competitive cyclist, I use to despise rain during races. As a trail runner, however, rain can be a welcome way to stay cool and settle the dust. Precipitation in the mountains of Idaho in September could mean snow and I hoped the temperatures would remain in the 50s and 60s until nightfall. As the mile ticked by, I was amazed at the multitudes of single track trails in the Salmon River Mountains. Race director Jeremy Humphreys marks the entire course solo every year which is a testament to how well he knows the area. After cresting the pass near Duck Lake, we descended to the Duck Lake aid station (mile 43). I was hungry which was a very good sign at this point in the race. I gravitated towards salty cashews and cantaloupe and left feeling energized. The next several miles were forest road running and the miles felt hard on my feet as I was accustomed to flowing single track.
The Snow Slide aid station (mile 48) was a welcome sight as my crew of Allison and Jesse were efficient and encouraging. As I filled my water bottles and supplies, the sky opened and it poured. I realized I needed to keep moving to stay warm, so I headed up towards the Snow Slide climb with Josh and Kiefer right behind me. The miles began to pass slower than before due in part to the steeper terrain and the fatigue which I stubbornly resisted. Allison would join me as my pacer at the Lake Fork aid station (mile 60). I recalled leaving Lake Fork two years earlier with Kevin as my pacer. Feeling fast and invincible was rapidly replaced by feeling nauseous and numb in 2014. Allison and I discussed a nighttime strategy of moving slow and steady. Nightfall was about an hour away.
Night running is a blast. Night running with 65 miles under your legs is surreal and ridiculously challenging. I relied on Allison for route finding, conversation, perspective, and companionship. She paced me through the night the year before at the Bighorn 100: a very long 37-mile slog through nausea and frustration. Kevin paced me from mile 85 to the finish at Bighorn and saw me snap out of my nausea and complete the final 13 miles at a manic pace. Pacing is hard work, and Allison valiantly offered to pace me through the night once again.
We moved methodically up and down the steep Crestline terrain. Allison and I moved with the terrain, discussing how to stay fueled, warm, and semi-dry through the incessant drizzle which now chilled our skin beneath wet layers of high-tech clothing. I had managed to stave off my usual nausea through the use of whole food nutrition, but I ran of of “real” food around mile 55 and downed two gels instead. My stomach was tenuous thereafter, but I was still surprised when I puked around mile 75. Regretfully, I know how to manage my body when this occurs. My two choices are to lie down and sleep for an hour, or continue to move slowly. We decided on the latter since the rain and cold was not conducive to comfortably napping off my nausea.
We continued through the night. I experienced minor vertigo as we descended the wet, rocky trail and I knew I had to ingest some form of nutrition to continue. The North Crestline aid station (mile 80) seemed like a mirage. I could see Josh and Kiefer just ahead of us, and we joined them inside a drafty wall tent. The dryness of the tent seemed foreign and I went to work popping two toe blisters and changing my socks. I overheard Josh and Kiefer discussing dropping out of the race. Both were struggling with injuries and I knew Allison and I needed to kick it into gear before we gave our options a second thought. We marched out of the wall tent and climbed the rocky road to the summit. As we slowly descended (nausea makes the jarring of downhill running possible only in .25-mile bursts, followed by walking to avoid puking), a dark Suburban slowly overtook us. The rear window peeled down and Kiefer called out to Allison: “You are the best fucking pacer!”
At the base of the long rock road descend we entered the Terrible Terrance Trail. The trail was cut into an uneven slope, and while it all seemed rather terrible at this point, I enjoyed following Allison through the bumps and holes and listened to her stories and words of encouragement. Allison’s pacing duties were complete at the Upper Payette Lake aid station (mile 88). I wanted her to continue with me but knew she had to get back to Burgdorf Hot Springs to relieve the sitter who spent the night with her three boys. The trail climbed gradually after leaving Upper Payette Lake. I heard the faint sound of an occasional vehicle passing by the paved forest road in the distance. I knew the road ended at Burgdorf Hot Springs, but my path would be longer and included 3,000 more feet of climbing. “Just keep moving and keep sipping water,” I told myself.
The solitude was peaceful, but my body ached. I continued moving because forward was the only direction to go. Running uphill was not an option at this point. I power hiked and dodged puddles and the river which was now running down the single track trail. Wet feet were now my reality, and I dissolved plain M&Ms in my mouth and ruminated over how slow the dawn was transforming me out of my nighttime funk. The climb to the Bear Pete aid station (mile 98) was taxing but I knew the topography would soon change. The grey skies were now riddled with spots of blue sky and I began to strip damp, stench-filled layers from my body. “You made it through the night and now it’s time to finish this thing,” I said out loud…to no one.
GPS technology provides us with altitude, pace, time, and distance. But barometric GPS measurements are unreliable at times and vary from GPS watch to GPS watch. The IMTUF 100 was advertised as 102-108 miles in distance. My mind perseverated on the fact I had long since passed 100 miles. I longed to lie down and close my eyes after a refreshing dip in the hot springs. Around the bend I saw Allison and her son Ben hiking up the trail towards me. I was so happy to see familiar faces! After debating the distance to the finish, I ran ahead. I finally felt like I could run at a semi-normal pace on the gradual downhill terrain. The winding gravel road to the finish felt solid, and I crossed the finish line in 29:46. Not a blistering finish, but given the steady rain, nausea, and 23,000 feet of climbing I was content with the effort and experience. The remoteness of the IMTUF 100 was refreshing and humbling.
As I reflect on my experience at the 2016 IMTUF 100, I realize that the best aspects of the race were the company and dedication of my crew. Running 100 miles would not be possible without the people behind the scenes. Race directors, volunteers, family members, crew members collectively get us to the finish line. Running 100 miles is strangely synonymous with life. Whatever strength it takes, keep moving. Whatever the conditions, persevere. Whatever the outcome, stay humble and thank those around you. -John