Sep 16, 2009

Race Report: Grand Teton 50 Miler - 17:16:17

I took care of some unfinished business on labor day weekend by returning to Wyoming and completing the Grand Teton 50-miler in 17 hours 16 minutes. In 2008, I attempted this same race and failed to finish it, succumbing to my own fatigue after 14 hours at mile 36. That kind of disappointment really occupied my thoughts for the last year; there hasn't been a day that I've not thought about going back and finishing this race.

(if you can't see the above video, please click here.)

After flying into salt lake city on Wednesday night, we drove up the next morning and arrived at the race around lunch time on thursday. i quickly noticed the altitude at 8000' with some shortness of breath sitting in the lobby of the hotel. thankfully, it wasn't a significant problem at the race, a mere day and a half later.

eating tacos out of a converted bus in driggs, idaho - the closest town to the race

we hiked halfway up fred's on thursday afternoon.

This is a doozy of a course. It's a lap-course, with each lap having two 5-mile legs and a 15-mile leg. the first 5-mile leg is a quick ascent and descent of fred's mountain, a 2000' climb to the top of grand targhee ski area. the second leg is the 15 mile, where you further descend down the mountain down to 6000' and come back up a much less steep but relentless climb to 8500' before descending back to the 8000' bast. the last 5-mile leg, called rick's basin, is a 5-mile loop through gentle rolling hills with about 500' of climb. the total there is 25 miles and 5000'; do it twice and you've got yourself a 50-miler.

"The Teton races are KILLER and those mountains will squash your soul to a bloody pulp." - Meredith Murphy, comparing Tetons to another race I was running.

We drove up from SLC on Thursday and arrived Thursday afternoon. Upon arrival, we met up with fellow NYer Tony Portera, as we had planned to hike up Fred's that afternoon. As it turned out, Alex needed a nap and Joey came with us; we made it about halfway up before turning around. Pretty good for a 5-year-old! On the walk down, we ran into Chirag Mehta (who I referred to as "florida" for the balance of the weekend) and his pacer Arthur. Chirag was in town to do his first 100! A little further down, we encountered none other than Sean Meissner (who is one of the nicest guys I've ever met), effortlessly bounding his way up Fred's like how I run downhill. It was inspiring to see. Sean was entered in the 50 miler and was a contender to win.

Later that afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Tony's family, as well as Jen and Lane Vogel, who had come out from Georgia to run. Jen, earlier that summer, had won the keys 100 and was a hopeful to win the 100 here, too. Lane was competing in the 50 and would have a top ten finish. All of us; Chirag and Arthur, Sean, the Vogels, the Porteras, and the Tursis, would enjoy an outdoor dinner at the resort. It was a genuinely great time - the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to these things.

Race Start
My strategy was simple: go slow, finish. I would have been perfectly fine with a dead last finish, and actually kind of expected it. So, when ascending Fred's, I pulled ahead of a few people and immediately became worried that I was going too fast. I felt very comfortable, however, and resolved not to compare myself to them, just as I wouldn't compare myself to the front-runners.

Coming off Fred's for the first time

I reached the top and descended briskly, entering section B in 5th to last place. This is the part of the course where I hit a wall last year. Its 15 miles long, and the second half of which is a gradual but relentless climb that, frankly, intimidated me. I made sure to go extra-easy, and time went by quickly this early in the race. The way back up was uneventful, and before I knew it I was back in the main aid station at mile 20 feeling pretty good. I went out into Rick's, and finished that 5-mile section comfortably.

Coming back from Rick's, halfway done.

The second ascent of Fred's was where I went from bad to worse last year, and I've been really worried about repeating that again. I came off the mountain in a really bad way and was convinced that I was going to drop. This time, however, went really well - I went nice and slow and actually made it up to the top pretty comfortably - tired to be sure, but with plenty of gas left in the tank. The promise of the day becoming very bright upon ascending Fred's for the second time came through and I was in very high spirits for the next 14 miles or so.

I was very happy to be there. Alex and Joe took the ski lift up and met me there.. that was awesome.

I made sure to walk most of the way down Fred's, trying to save my legs - yes I felt great but still had 20 miles and 3000' to go.

Joey met me coming off Fred's.

Mill Creek intimidated me the first time, and I was really not looking forward to doing it again. Last year, it was the second time at the bottom of the hill, after dark, where I dropped from the race and I was determined not to drop again - but I also knew it'd probably be dark before I returned to the main aid station and was a little disappointed by this - I had a semi-secret goal of getting into Rick's by dark just because I the woods in Mill Creek were spooky enough in the daylight.

Leaving for Mill Creek, take 2

The run down was uneventful, I spent a lot of the time trying to shoot video with my little flip video camera (the results of which you can see above). It's hard holding that thing steady! It was at the bottom, where woman's 100-mile winner Ashley Nordell, along with her pacer Jamie Donaldson passed me on her way to smashing the course record, and also in the video above there's a brief shot of the two of them walking up the asphalt road shortly after passing me.

The 3.3mile asphalt road is a constant uphill and can get hot, so is considered a pretty tough proposition by a lot of people. However, the two times I've done it before (once in 2008 and earlier in this day), I tended to have a pretty easy time there - I just kind of settle into a zone and power-walk the thing. Took me a hair over an hour the first lap, and now, in this second lap, I would ascend it in 59 minutes - a negative split. I didn't realize how fast I was going, and by the time I got to the top, 39.6 miles into the race, I was just starting to feeling pretty beat up. The sun had set and I only had 30 minutes tops before I'd be in complete darkness - but still, it was here at this aid station, at 7:36PM, that I sat down for the first time all day. I just was not looking forward to the next section.

After five minutes I pulled my sorry ass out of the chair and started turning my stiff legs over until they loosened up after a quarter mile, and chugged along the section where, last year and in the previous lap, I hit a surprisingly early wall. Darkness descended agonizingly slow, but I was making decent progress and there was still a bit of twilight when I reached the "stick" of this lollypop-shaped section - where I'd find oncoming runner traffic. Saw a couple of 100-mile runners, and, interestingly enough, also saw all but two of the 50-mile runners behind me - I thought they were less than 6 miles behind but apparently I was wrong. Before I knew it, I had passed the cat skiing hut and was ascending "lightning ridge", as I believe it's called, which is relatively short (~500 feet of gain) but just as steep as Fred's and, as it turns out, extremely hard for being 43.5 miles into this race. At this point, I was toasted. Completely dark outside, a couple of 100-mile runners coming down the hill would encourage me (notably, Hans-Dieter Weisshaar said some very kind words here), while I was bent over in exhaustion on the hill. I took close to 45 minutes to complete this single mile. Once on the ridge, it was largely downhill all the way to the main aid station but I was just too tired to run. Here, Bob Grove, the only male 50-mile runner behind me who was still in the race, caught me and we walked that last mile to the aid station. He was doing his first 50 and dealing with some issues of his own, blisters (Thankfully, that never became a problem for me.) It was good to talk to someone for a little bit of the race.

Coming into the main aid station. I was all smiles because despite my fatigue, I only had 5 miles to go and knew I was going to make it.

when I reached the main aid station, I sat down for the second time of the day and enjoyed some pizza, which the race organizers brought in. Last year, Co-RaceDirector Lisa force-fed me pizza was part of what got me back out on the trail when I was sure I would drop at mile 30. It didn't seem appetizing until I had a bite, and then I ate three slices. Figuring that my fatigue at this point at mile 45 was simply history repeating itself, I helped myself to three more slices of pizza before returning to rick's basin for the final 5 miles.

pizza was in the microwave.

Three slices of pizza.. was a mistake. It wasn't very long into that last section when my stomach started to churn as the gas pain built up. What little running I would have done pretty much became impossible. On the contrary, at least three times I sat down on the side of the trail, the first time from the stomach pain, and the last time from pure exhaustion. The split for this section - 1:40 in lap 1, 2:15 in lap 2, tells the story. But, at this point, there's not much you can do but make it to the next aid station - which happened to be the finish line!

So, 16 minutes after midnight, my wobble turned into a weak stride as I ran down the hill and finished the Grand Teton 50-miler! I received hugs from Co-RaceDirector Jay Batchen and Sean Meissner and promptly flopped down on a tarp, with only enough consciousness to use my own drop bag as a pillow.

I could have stayed there all night

This was the hardest thing I've ever done, it made ever other ultra I've finished look like chicken feed. And apparently, it was really important to me that I finish this - as I experienced an unexpectedly high level of satisfaction for a few days after the race.

What's next for me? I have a very busy 3 weeks coming up, where I'm going to go on a bit of a 50K rampage. Starting with Vermont, then a Team Slug event, then Blues Cruise, and finally Mountain Madness. Four 50Ks within 20 days, three within 8 days, and in the case of slug and blues, two 50ks in two days. Afterwords, it's all about ramping up for the Umstead 100-miler, which I successfully registered for this week.

I want to briefly mention Sister Marybeth Lloyd, 50-something years old, who completed the 50-mile event, while wearing her Habit, in 21:21:41. She was out there from 7am until 4:21am to raise money for kids who were orphaned by AIDs. Check out the charity's site.

Here are some other folks who graced the tetons with their presence, and who I wanted to give a shout to:

Byron Powell, of

Sarah Thomsen, fellow back-of-the-packer in the 50-miler

Dusty Hardman, who, along with Tony, ran both the 50-miler and the marathon the next day - they're the only two people ever to do this! She's also just a ton of fun to be around..


  1. Great report Steve ! Congrats on your accomplishment.

  2. Good to meet you out there. Congrats on a great 50.


  3. Steve - an amazing race report. How you managed to remember all of that, I will never know! Looking forward to running MM with you next month (I'll try to keep up)!

  4. Nice one! Congrats on slaying this beast. Very impressive.