Saturday, 7 September 2013

Wasatch Front 100 - The Finale of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning

The end of 400 miles. Photo: irunfar

Just 20 days after Leadville the remaining 23 Grand Slammers turned up in Utah to crown the summer's efforts. Much as Nick and I wanted to do well in the race itself, it was now all down to whether he could beat me by over 69 minutes, which was my lead from the other races. As he said in post-Leadville interviews, it was 'game on.' See my race reports from the other three races (Western States, Vermont and Leadville).

A canceled flight the day before the race didn't help my stress levels but I eventually got to the race briefing late, direct from the airport. There was a lot of uncertainty in the air for me despite the fact everyone I spoke to seemed to think I had the Slam record in the bag. I didn't think that, but at least I was uninjured and as well rested as possible.

The race itself started with almost two hours of dark and the first few miles were on gently rolling trails, an easy introduction into the 26,500ft of ascent and almost that much descent (it's a point-to-point course). This race is by far the hardest of the Grand Slam events and wasn't helped by it being one of, if not the, hottest year in the race's history.

Nick and I went to the front from about mile three onwards then the first huge climb started and Nick disappeared into the darkness. By the top of the climb, a 4,000ft net gain, I could just see him about three minutes ahead and I was just ahead of the chase pack. I felt that was a good start and that my legs were cooperating. Some of the early miles were beautiful and I was able to enjoy it before feeling the fatigue and soreness that would inevitably follow. Rod Bien and I ran together for many miles and I considered him the biggest threat for the win after Nick since I used to live in Bend, OR, where Rod lives and I'd seen his strength on the climbs. Rod eventually got a comfortable margin for third, but all I cared about was how far ahead Nick was.

Nick led from start to finish and I was in second almost the whole day as well, but he had me worried when he started increasing his lead through the day. It didn't help that I missed a turn before half-way and added 15 minutes, meaning he had a 38-minute lead at mile 52. The heat took it's toll in the first half too and therefore many people dropped fairly early on, plus all the runners were slowed by the lack of shade for long sections. Even though Western States was far hotter this year than Wasatch, I had about as many issues dealing with dizziness and difficulty eating at both. The additional altitude of Wasatch certainly added to this, with much of the course above 9,000ft.

From about 25 miles in I could definitely tell my legs had run several 100s recently, which wasn't how it felt at Leadville. All I could do was to look after myself enough to avoid a melt-down (or a serious one anyway). Yet Nick kept his lead to between 27 and 41 minutes for most of the second half so I had to push.

I've never vomited in a race before so when I got light-headed then started spewing at mile 80, I got very worried. It had been dark for over an hour and the trails in the last 25 miles are sketchy to say the least. Technical, rocky trails are fun, but there were some nasty super-steep descents down v-shaped scree slopes with fist-sized rocks throughout. Combining high altitude, exhaustion, night and those downhills led to a lot of falls, swearing and frustration. I struggled to get into a rhythm with constant ups and downs from mile 85 and was generally feeling sorry for myself. I was sure Nick must have been zooming ahead of me to get close to the 69-minute win he needed, but I wasn't the only one feeling the effects of the day and the previous races.

After a 9.7-mile stretch between aid stations on the hardest terrain of the day I'd somehow pulled back a few minutes, which got me so excited I sped up then had to puke again. With 7.6 miles to go Nick was only about 35 minutes ahead, so even my second bout of stomach issues wasn't enough to worry me.

In contrast to some of the insanely hard night sections before it, the last few miles are gentle and very runnable. There's still a lot of downhill to the finish but it's at more of a pedestrian 12% gradient than the near vertical sections earlier, plus it's all on fire roads finishing with a couple of miles of paved road.

Wasatch is undoubtedly the hardest race I've ever run and makes for a seriously tough finish to the Grand Slam. I look back now and know the only reason I got through it and kept motivated was that nick and I had pushed each other for the whole summer and I was never going to let that hard work go to waste.

Nick won in 20h24m, a slower time than he should have run due to the heat and leg fatigue. I heard him finish as I was running down the side of the mountains about three and a half miles away. Then I came in just under 21 hours after more night running than I've ever dealt with, but couldn't find the route to the finish line when just feet away from it. I was shouted at very angrily by a race volunteer (I assume) who told me to follow the glow-sticks, which just weren't very visible from 100ft away. That little altercation cost me a couple of minutes and I finished in 21h01m. I felt no emotion, not even relief, and was just drained. The day had been full of so many emotions and highs and lows as varied as the course profile, that I think there was just nothing left. It took me about two hours to eat a grilled cheese sandwich as even that was too much effort after the running stopped. Full race results here.

Nick at the finish. Photo: irunfar

Congratulating each other on our wins (everyone's a winner). Photo: irunfar

In summary

So Nick ran the fastest combined time for the four Slam races in 70h21m but 37 minutes later I lowered that again to 69h49m. Just writing that makes me wonder how we both were able to go head-to-head for such a huge amount of time and finish so close. It really came down to the final miles and nothing was certain until we both crossed the line.

Much as the body gets damaged by these consecutive 100-milers, the mind takes a beating too. Forcing myself to give it everything through the last 30-70 miles (depending on which race in the series it was) four times in succession drained me to my core.

I'll have many fond memories of this summer and the main theme will be the friendly, but committed, competition with a good friend and incredible runner. I've nothing but the utmost respect for Nick and we drove each other to perform better and run faster than solo efforts would have allowed. It's rare to see a close rivalry between just two runners in the ultra world and to have us so evenly matched through the summer. I look forward to the next time we face off against each other, probably at the 2014 Western States.

There were 22 finishers in the official Grand Slam plus Nick completed the races without entering the overall series. Their details are here and all went through more than I could have imagined before I attempted it myself.

My full Grand Slam write-up is on irunfar.

Also, here are the Strava GPS files for the four Slam races:

And finally the gear I used, which was basically identical through all four races and worked really well for me:

Scott Kinabalu T2 trail shoes
UltrAspire handhelds, Spry and Alpha vests
Julbo Dust shades
Clif Bar Shot gels and Shot Bloks
Drymax Max Protection Trail socks
Hypoxico Altitude Tent (for Wasatch only)

Thank you to everyone who helped or supported me, whether it was my pacers Sean Meissner and Aaron Keller, my sponsors or my wife who had to put up with me spending half the summer away from home.


  1. So impressive, both of you, on running part, and so impressive, each of you, on individual accounts. Awesomely done. Congratulations, so well deserved.

  2. Thanks for the great report. Truly an amazing achievement.

  3. Great write-up and congratulations on your achievement!

  4. So strong and consistent. That level of competitiveness over so many miles and so much time (including the vital time between the races) is mind boggling. Congratulations on a well earned title.

  5. Congrats Ian! It has been fun and inspiring to watch you and Nick this summer.

  6. Well done, Ian. We hope this isn't the last the WF100 has seen of you. Come back again soon!

  7. Thanks for sharing these details and emotions, Ian. CONGRATULATIONS again, even more so now knowing the full story that the exciting, yet raw, times of the webcast were not telling. Phew, what a hot, burning, blazing summer you and Nick had on these trails!!! You made 2013 quite a memorable year!

  8. Totally epic and inspirational! Stuff that legends and movies are made of!

  9. Really well done! The Bay Area was cheering for you!

  10. Thanks everyone. I'm just starting to feel normal again and have some kind of emotional response to it all (other than fatigue).

  11. Mission accomplished! I staged a giant bull moose in Lambs Canyon to scare the daylights out of him. I pretended to not be able to find Alexander's spring while I hid under the shady bushes for several minutes. "Nope, I can't find it...gimme another minute." I hand-placed rocks in key locations to trip him and a mud hole to cover him head to toe in filth. I annoyed him enough with my incessant babbling to seal the deal. The boys at corporate will be pleased. Serious double agent stuff! This message will self-destruct in 3-2-1...

    Big congrats man. It's hard to say what will happen to our sport in the near and distant future. However, I would not be surprised if this record- and what you and Nick did- is not bested this generation. Like I told Nick out there during the bad times, "they are going to write books about this someday." It's that good and compelling of a story to so many people. Hopefully your next goal is kindness to your body and a return to healthful, painless and fun running.
    Best wishes,

  12. Congrats Ian and also the most humble and kind ultra winner. Hope to see you again at Rocky Raccoon.