Grandmaster of Disaster

After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.

No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.

My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.

I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.

Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.

The footing’s even more fun in the dark!

I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.

I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.

The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?

And the aid station volunteers were awesome, too!

Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.

In the desert, stuff just kinda shows up outta nowhere.

I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.

On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.

First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.

Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.

The middle of that tough stretch. Easy during the day. At night…not so much.

I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.

Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.

And I had a Walmsley moment.

At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.

And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.

“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.

Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.

I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.

And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.

I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.

I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.

And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?

Now I ask you – isn’t that one cool-looking trophy?

And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.

Remembering Rebecca

I’m back home, fresh off the Grandmaster 100K in sunny Beaver Dam, Arizona and the surrounding desert. Feeling pretty good, considering, and enjoying the rest days. I have quite a story from the ultra (two, actually), and I was all set to tell you about it.

But today I learned something that forces me to put all that aside, and I’m going to share that with you instead.

I’ve written before about Rebecca Gartrell, who, before we ever actually met in person, chased me across the state of Michigan. Literally. On foot.

We were both running the 2018 Veterans Memorial, a 150-mile race from Ludington on Lake Michigan to Bay City on Lake Huron. The race raises money for Victory Gym, a nonprofit and free gym for veterans and first responders, and also providing PTSD therapy. A great cause I was happy to be part of. And while I drove up from Ann Arbor, Rebecca came all the way from Texas to participate.

Well, from mile 80 all the way to the finish she was on my mind. Because I was the lead runner and she was in second, and at every aid station progress check, it seemed like she was creeping ever closer. I did win by a good margin and wanted to meet her, but was too wiped out to stick around. But I found her race record online, and man, was it impressive.

Five weeks later, Rebecca ran the Last Annual Vol State 500K, a ten-day race across the state of Tennessee. After the VM 150 I was just trying to walk normally again, but for her it was just a warmup, I guess. She did it unsupported, sleeping on park benches and church lawns. Just goes to show, I told myself (again) – no matter how crazy you are, there’s always someone crazier.

Fast forward to the 2019 Veterans Memorial race. I’m there to help out and run the first 12-mile leg for fun. She’s also back, and I meet this remarkable lady for the first time. After chatting about her Last Annual Vol State race, I implored her to talk me out of doing it. “Nope, can’t do that,” she said. Damn. So it’s still on my list of races to do. Someday.

2019 VM150 start. I’m on the left in the red shirt, looking at Rebecca. Kurt, the RD, is on her left in the blue shirt and jeans.

Just recently she appeared on my radar again. I’m researching 200-mile races to celebrate being 60 next year (crazy, yes) and found an online recap of the Buckeye Ultra 200. It features two very tired guys finding the strength to push each other to the end. They finish nearly together – second and third. And the winner? Yep. Rebecca Gartrell.

This month she set out on a planned 870-mile run across the state of Texas (see above, “always someone crazier”). By herself, with one friend as crew. For fun. No money, no prize, no glory. Just to do it. They set up a website to track their progress. I cheered them on.

Well, on Monday, 265 miles into her odyssey, Rebecca was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver early in the morning. I heard the news today from a friend who had also been following her progress. It still hasn’t sunk in. Part of me wants to believe she’s still out there doing her thing.

This is so damn unfair. Things like this shouldn’t happen to people so full of life. And I can’t imagine what her family and friends are going through.

I have no words of wisdom, folks. I can only pass along what her friend and crew person said in the post announcing her death:

Life is short and very precious – hug your loved ones a little tighter and longer and live for the day. She would have wanted you to.

Rest well, Rebecca. It was great to know you.

Turnaround

Yesterday I went out to Chelsea for my assigned tempo run. Being winter in Michigan, it was cold, and I ran the first half uphill into a stiff headwind. It had the makings of a real suck. But the sky was blue and the sun was shining after weeks of miserable gray, and when I turned around and headed back, things felt so much better. All in all, a pretty good run.

And a pretty good analogy, in my mind anyway, of recent happenings in this country.

Now I’m not going to say that the entirety of the last four years was one big suck for me. Quite the contrary. My wife survived cancer, one daughter got married, and our other one got engaged. And I had a number of memorable adventures which I’ve written about previously here.

But on Inauguration Day I felt very much like that tempo run turnaround point. The wind had shifted and the breathing got easier. It had gotten so bad I stopped listening to the news, so I wouldn’t have to hear about the latest crazy-ass thing our then occupant of the Oval Office said or did. Believe what you like about our new commander in chief, but he has a brain and a heart, and cares about more than himself alone. I feel so much better about our country. And, apparently, so does most of the rest of the world.

I hope this gives us all a chance to pause and reflect on where we need to go as a nation, and how we should behave toward each other. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, let’s talk, and I will listen and ask questions. We don’t have to agree, or even like each other, but we need to understand each other so we can all learn and make ourselves and America better.

Burning Man. The ultimate “get along” experience. Everyone should go once.

I run in Michigan winters because it makes me stronger, and helps me achieve my goals. Maybe we had to go through a period of adversity to remind us that democracy cannot be taken for granted, and getting along with each other requires active engagement. I have to hope we emerge stronger as Americans because of it. That remains to be seen, of course.

But for the moment, I’m happy to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the sunshine.

New Year, and Lots More News

As the old advice goes, always have something to look forward to. Or maybe I just made that up. Either way, I try to follow it. Which means doing new stuff or reaching new milestones.

So what’s new with RBT as the old year comes thankfully to an end? Many things. Here’s the latest and greatest from your (somewhat) humble ultrarunner!

New Mileage PR

Of all the years I’ve run, most of which have included several ultras, who would’ve believed I’d set a new personal record for miles run this year, with curtailed group runs and only one ultra? And yet it happened. This month I passed 1,200 miles for the year, averaging 100 miles per month and blowing away my old record.

This was accomplished in part by a 34-day run streak in May, as part of an events company challenge, but most was just getting my butt out the door. Speaking of, if you’re a runner needing some motivation, or know a runner, I have just the book for you, written by RF Events owner Randy Step. Go get it on Amazon.

New Running Coach

With races hopefully starting up again next year, and goals yet to be met, I knew I needed to restore some discipline to my running training. Which meant a professional coach. I aimed high and emailed one of the best-known trail running coaches out there. His reply went something like this:

Hi Jeff! Thank you so much for reaching out, you are amazing. We appreciate you so much! We are full right now, so sorry…

However, he went on to recommend a coach he really liked, who did have a spot for me. And so my latest regime of torture has officially begun under coach Ryan Miller, a two-time U.S. Olympic qualifier. His Instagram page is full of stuff like the below. Yeah, we’re like-minded all right.

New Watch

So my faithful Garmin 310XT watch, which has served me from roughly the Stone Age, has begun to show signs of battery failure. Problem, because I bought this watch precisely for its long battery life, allowing me to run 50-milers and more without recharging. So, naturally, I went out and bought the best thing I could find out there:

Meet the new watch…the same as the old watch…

That’s right! The newer watches still can’t match the simplicity, ease of use, and battery life of these ancient babies. So far, so good. I’ll take both to my next ultra.

And speaking of. . .

2021: New Races

The pandemic may be far from over, but signs of life are creeping back into the world of trail running. And two upcoming events are confirmed live!

The first is the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K, which I’ve run every year since 2014. Yes, it is actually running in snowshoes, and yes, it’s as lung-busting as it sounds. It’s also a blast. You can read my adventures here in previous blog posts on the subject. Just type “Bigfoot” into my site’s Search box. Or see this one from the 2016 race.

The second is the Grandmaster Ultra, taking place the following week in the Arizona desert. I ran the 50 miler in 2020, and you can read my report here. Been there, done that, but loved the venue, so in 2021 I’ll be doing the 100K.

I’ll provide more details, like social distancing precautions, in upcoming posts. In the meantime, rest assured I will looking out for myself, and others, very carefully.

And finally,

New Site!

I began this site as Fitness At 50 back in 2011, so this means my ten-year anniversary is coming up. Time to join the 2020s in terms of site layout and refresh the content. Maybe even a new blog name! Changes will be coming soon. Don’t worry, I’ll provide plenty of warning. Or not.

Thanks for reading, and have a great New Year!