Pocatello 50-Mile Race Report
May 29, 2010 (first leg of three-person relay, Team Fall Down 7 Times, with Kelly Sawyer and Jason Simmons)
Friday, May 28: Arrival
Flew in to Salt Lake City; Kelly, Jason, and I drove to Pocatello, about 3 hours, in a rental car. We were surprised by the weather; though we had heard there was some rain, we were startled to see snowflakes in the 45 degree, overcast day. Because we got in later, we drove straight to the race start in time to pick up our packets around 4:30PM, hang out with all the Austin people, and listen to the course talk at about 5:00PM. It was windy and rainy but the sun came out while we were there at the Mink Creek race start. The weather seemed to be improving.
As usual, everyone there at the course talk looked really fit.The race director went over the course markings, mentioning that there were flags about every 1/8th of a mile and that the mud was bad due to the recent rains. Those doing the third leg (50-milers and the 3rd leg of relays: in our case, Jason) would have snow, especially on Scout Mountain, the highest point. He also said that he thought it was one of the hardest 50-milers in the country. I was excited and looking forward to my section, the first leg of the relay (about 17 miles) and a little bit nervous…but I knew I’d done a good job preparing, so all that was left to do was to go out and run.
That night, a lot of us went to eat dinner at the Portneuf Brew pub. It was hard not to drink a beer from a social standpoint, but I was happy to get a good dinner that kept me to my diet of avoiding wheat, soy, peanuts, and oranges (my allergy trigger foods). It had been a long day, and I made it even longer by getting everything set out for race morning once I was back at the hotel.
I’d decided to take the bladder out of my Camelbak and use it as a tote to carry an extra water bottle, my Epi-pen, and all my race food. I was going to carry my larger water bottle in my hand; my leg had only one aid station at the 8.3 mile mark so on a hot day, my one bottle might not be quite enough. Also, using the Camelbak as a pack would enable me to bring extra clothes if I felt I’d need them. I’d decided to take my ¾ tights, and an extra long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and socks in addition to another jacket in a bag to the start in case I decided I needed to carry something extra that morning or wanted to change at the last minute. I’d put together a drop bag for Kelly to take in her car for my finish.
The plan was that I, along with several other runners doing both the 50-miler and the relay first leg, would ride in a car with Julia Wolf to the start and that Kelly, our Leg 2 runner, would drive herself to my finish point at City Creek and wait for me to come in. I’d take the car, head back to the hotel to clean up, and then meet her at her finish point at Mink Creek (mile 32 of the course). Jason was going to go when Julia took a wave of runners to the start of the third leg, giving him maximum sleep time, and then Kelly and I would meet him at the finish. I set my alarm for 4:00AM and tried to sleep.
Saturday, May 29: Race Start
Surprisingly, I was awake before the alarm went off. I made some coffee, took my meds, and got dressed. I’d decided to wear shorts, a black short-sleeved shirt with my tattoo arm warmers, my good running gloves (not the disposable cotton ones), ear warmer, black running cap, and my yellow cycling jacket. It’s water repellent or some such, not a true rain jacket, and has removable sleeves. I also put a disposable plastic rain poncho in my pack.
My thinking behind this outfit was that I’d start out warm and I could remove and add layers as I needed them. I tend to run hot, so normally I don’t wear tights unless it’s below freezing OR in the 30s and raining. According to the local weather station, the morning temperature was about 45 degrees, a bit windy, with the possibility of intermittent rain and something called “snow showers.” Almost all of us (certainly all of us only running the first leg of the race) were wearing some version of what I had on. We piled into the rental car and Julia had us at the race site by 5:20AM. Brenda Rodgers Brown and I hit the port-a-potty and then hung out in the car with Julia, Elizabeth Wood, and Joe and Joyce Prusaitis — we all agreed there was no needed for warmer stuff, and Elizabeth actually took off her tights, opting for shorts.
The sun was up when we started down the national park road at 6:00AM from Mink Creek. The elevation there was about 5,200ft and I did feel it as we first ran, but I think that I was pushing it a bit since we were on the road…and I was well towards the back of the pack. Finally, we stepped off the road and onto trail.
Fairly quickly, we climbed to 6,000 feet; I’d decided to power walk the up hills that sent my heart rate up. There was a bit of chatting amongst us; Elizabeth and I were running together, and there was a woman with us who was doing her first ultra. The trail was single track and dirt — it seemed to have been more of a mountain bike trail than a runner’s trail, as it was a deep trench, not much wider than a footfall, so I had to watch my stride a lot.
Things Begin to Get Wet
As we moved into some rolling downhill, it began to sleet slightly, little crystal pellets that were smaller than BBs and laid on the ground. The guy behind me was from the area and I asked him if they would stick and make the ground slippery; he said, no, that it wasn’t cold enough but that things might get pretty wet later.
We’d been running in this single file for awhile, about 1:15 (I’d glanced at my watch), when there came a space at the top of a small hill where I could step aside and get food out of my pack. Three people went around; Elizabeth stopped as well, and we helped each other pull out food. The sleet was coming down in more copious amounts, and we admired the way the wind made it seem to fall in waves. Down the hill we went and ran from the exposed hill trail into a lovely wooded area with several small creeks to hop over; the path had a piney texture similar to Bastrop, without the sand.
When we came out of the woods, we resumed the deep single track trails…which had become giant, churned tunnels of mud. Not the Herman Munster grab-your-shoes clumpy Bandera mud but a chocolate pudding Slip ‘n Slide skate-down-the-trail “greasy” mess. It was easier to bushwhack through the grass at the side of the trail, and we could see that many folks had done just that. However, there were large sections where there was no option but to get in the mud. Elizabeth was recovering from an ACL issue and I was petrified of slipping and reinjuring my hamstring, so while we were both going cautiously and slowed considerably, I fell behind Elizabeth.
There were lots of near falls, and Elizabeth did go down a time or two. We were joined by another woman; the mud lasted until we came to Gibson Jack, the only aid station on our leg, at 8.3 miles and back up at approximately 5,200 feet. We were in at about 2:15, on the slow side but right where I’d figured I’d be. It looked like I would be on pace for the 4:00-5:00 finish time I’d predicted to my team, the swing factor being weather and trail conditions.
By this time, my hands and feet were quite wet and cold. I took some time at the aid station (I hit lap as I came out, for a total run time of 2:22.35); I got more water, though I had drunk only about 10 ounces from my handheld, and I asked the volunteer to pull my poncho out of my back coat pocket and help me put it on over my Camelback. I gave my bib number, told the volunteers I was heading out, and thanked them. I also mentioned that I thought the course, if not the weather, was beautiful. “Oh, if you like this, just wait until you get to Scout Mountain,” yelled one volunteer; I told him, “I’m not going there — just the first leg for me,” and bunnied on down the trail.
The sleet was really coming down at this point. Elizabeth and the other woman had left the aid station before me and, periodically, I could see them ahead. The trail was marked with pink and blue ribbons; because the sleet was getting in my eyes, I was keeping my head down, only checking every so often for the flags on the course. I knew we had some bushwhacking to do before the big climb and wondered when that would come. Tired of being exposed to the sleet, I found myself hoping for some tree coverage, so I was very happy when I saw forest. At that point, I think I was about 30–35 minutes from the aid station.
Going Off Course
As I entered the woods, I stepped over a picked-clean carcass of some sort. The scene was breathtaking; babbling creek on my left, tall trees all around, white accumulating sleet on the ground. It was warmer under the trees, so I ran a bit faster. I crossed a couple of make-shift wooden bridges and was a bit puzzled by the number of foot prints coming back at me; then, I began to look for a flag. The race director had said they’d placed a flag about every 1/8 of a mile, and so far, that had been true. So when I realized 7 to 10 minutes had passed without me seeing a flag, I knew something was wrong. I hadn’t come across a soul, and the trail began to peter out. I was sure I’d gone off course and decided to turn around to go back to find the last flag.
Doubling back made me mad, as I was feeling good and wanted to run well. Just as I crossed the last wooden bridge, I met up with a young woman who told me she was the course sweeper. I informed her that I thought we were off course because I hadn’t seen any flags that way and I asked her if that was correct. She said she hadn’t run the route before but she pulled out a map and said we must’ve missed the right-hand turn to the climb. We kept going back, stepped over the carcass, came out of the trees, and — sure enough — I saw the flags to our left, heading up the hill. I can only imagine that, with the wind blowing them away from me and my head down to avoid the sleet, they were easy to miss.
We stopped there, and the sweeper asked me if I’d seen a man in a yellow jacket; I said no, but I had no idea if anyone ahead of me went the wrong way (just as I had, and it was likely some others had, too, as there were so many footprints). She decided to call the race director to tell him there was a possibility of people being off course. I looked at the flags and decided to get on with the rest of my leg, as I was only wasting time standing around with the sweeper while she talked on the radio. I took off up the path, eager to get on with it.
At that point, I was at the 10.1 mile point in the loop, having added an undetermined amount of time and mileage by taking the wrong turn. I have no idea what my time was (I didn’t look at my watch nor take a split), though for some reason I think I was around 3:00. I knew I had a 1.3 mile section of bushwhacking to take me to the top of Kinport Peak, the highest point of my leg at 7,179 feet…a gain of approximately 2,000 feet. And so I wanted to get going.
Getting Into Trouble
Though my hands were still cold, my feet had warmed since I’d left the greasy mud; I’d eaten a bag of Sport Beans and a Lara Bar, and I was feeling pretty good. I was pissed about the wrong turn, which I figured had given me an extra 20 minutes or more of running. All in all, though, I felt pretty good as I started up the climb.
There was no actual trail and the terrain consisted of small granite-looking boulders strewn about with small shrubby plants, a few wildflowers, tufts of grass, and an occasional cactus intermixed. The wind had begun to pick up, so I proceeded cautiously. While the sun had never really been out, it became more and more overcast and gray. I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me (nor could I see the top of where I was headed) and, after a while, I looked back to see if the sweeper was coming up with me. It surprised me that I didn’t see her, and I wondered fleetingly if perhaps others had been behind me. I also couldn’t really see exactly where I’d been due to the weather, so it was possible she was climbing behind me somewhere. I soon had to simply focus on what I was doing, as the climb became steeper and the wind stronger.
And then the sleet (or snow) really began to come down.
I don’t know if it was a gradual onset and I just became aware of how bad it was at some certain point or if it deteriorated quickly and drastically, but I thought, “Holy shit, what have I gotten myself into?” I looked behind me and quickly thought that it would be more dangerous to try to work my way back down than to continue on up; the sleet and snow had accumulated enough that I was worried about slippery rocks. Plus, it was difficult to see down there. The wind was whipping across me in fierce, steady gusts; there were no trees to block the stinging ice as it came across my face and exposed legs, which were being pelted mercilessly.
I pulled out my bandana to tie it across my nose and mouth to act as a shield and warm the air that was making my throat sting but my fingers were not coordinated enough to tie the knot, so I just held it to my mouth for awhile as I climbed. But I needed both my hands; it was too windy to stay completely upright all the time, so often I used my hand to steady myself against a rock. The wind was so strong that I was knocked sideways several times, losing my balance. Once, I came down with my hand on top of a cactus — my hand was too numb to actually feel the spines, but I pulled out the bigger ones to keep them from being pushed in further.
The snow/sleet was coming so thick that I was having a hard time looking for the flags; the flakes stung my eyes and the whiteness was obscuring the flags that were tied to shrubs, rocks or sticks. Several times, I actually yelled out loud in frustration, “I need a flag! Where are my flags?” The wind was whipping them away from me. I was at the point where pressing on was my only option. There was precious little shelter from anything and my hope was that, once I reached the top, I’d find flat trail so I could actually get moving. I was shaking and my teeth were chattering all the way to my jaw. The skin on my legs had turned a bright orangish red, and ice had formed on the left side of my head, the side facing the wind. I had no idea how long I’d been climbing.
I realized I’d come to the top of my climb and what I saw made me cry. I sat down and tried to collect myself, because the ridge was simply where the two steep sides of the mountain met: no plateau, nothing flat, no trees — just more of the same terrain, a narrow, uneven spine of rocky, windswept land. I could see one flag ahead of me. My fear was that the wind would knock me sideways and, with my shaky legs, I’d go down and slide. I was exhausted.
There was no real choice; down was not an option, and it was too exposed and I was too poorly dressed to wait out the storm. I talked out loud but I don’t really remember what all I said, other than, “You have to do this yourself. There is no one to help you.” I moved very slowly. Several times, I thought I’d lost my flags (which in hindsight, just goes to show that I was mentally losing it — there was NOWHERE else to go but across the ridge). The ridge seemed like an eternity. The thing that really kept me moving was that I knew that the section following was supposed to have dirt road and some fast downhill running into the aid station. Somewhere, the ridge had to end.
Again, I have no concept of time here. But I came to the end of the ridge to find the land widened out…and I had another section of climb. I felt so disheartened. Someone had put a sign out there next to a Darth Vadar helmet; it read, “The force is strong within you.” It made me think about the T-shirt my friend Abe had given me in Leadville: “Do or do not; there is no try.” All of that was vaguely comforting, and I kept on going up, thankful that at least there were some trees and I was no longer feeling like I was precariously balancing in the sky. I don’t remember the transition, but I do remember starting to run down a snow-covered jeep road…a white, downhill expanse. Idly, I wondered if the snow would be deep or slippery but ultimately, I just didn’t care; I knew that, in order to get warm and finish, I had to move as fast as I could.
Conditions Become Worse
The snow had covered most everything, but I could see flags and I was working hard to move fast and generate heat. It was a surreal landscape: white everywhere, no footprints to be seen, as though I were the only person in the world out there. It was desolate. I was shaking so badly. The wind on the ridge had ripped my poncho to shreds; my clothes, gloves, and shoes were wet. I was moving as fast as I possibly could downhill , but I stopped short when the trail flattened out — I could see a meeting of what appeared to be three jeep roads…and no flags.
Mentally, I was losing it. As I looked at my options, I realized my situation had deteriorated to the point that making bad decisions could put me in real physical danger. Conditions were as close to a whiteout as I could imagine, and I had a choice to make. Sometimes, tape had been laid across the mouth of a wrong trail option but if there was tape at this particular intersection, it had been buried by the snow. There was no human sign to guide me, and I was completely unfamiliar with the area. The road to the left seemed more prominent, so I chose that way.
I could tell I was staggering but “running” was helping to generate some heat. But after a few minutes, my internal timer went off — I hadn’t seen a flag. I stopped and cried. I had no idea if the flags were there but buried or if I had chosen the wrong way. I knew my only hope of any help was to be on the correct course, because rescue would work from the aid station backwards. The best thing to do was to turn around and go back to the last flag I’d seen.
My heart sank; I knew I was depleted, and backtracking was using resources I couldn’t spare, but it was my only choice. An image of me wandering aimlessly alone in the white wilderness for hours popped into my mind, and I despaired. I looked at my watch — I remember my total elapsed time at that point was about 5 hours. I’d told Jason and Kelly that, depending on trail conditions, I’d be in at the City Creek aid station between 4:00 and 5:00. I hoped that, after 5 hours, they’d begin to worry and notify the race personnel that I was somewhere out on the course.
So back I went.
My Snow Angel
I came all the way back to the intersection and there was the last flag…and there was the flag I’d missed, showing the center trail as the correct choice. As I started down it, I was shocked to see a figure coming out of the white, a slender guy in black tights, a silver jacket, and a ski hat. He ran up to me and said, “Are you okay?” and I fell apart. He took a look at me: “I’m going to put my jacket on you, and then we have to move.”
He took the remnants of my poncho off and swapped them out for his jacket, and then he told me to hug him. I put my arms around him, sobbing and shaking, and he wrapped me in a big hug for about a minute and then began rubbing my back and arms briskly. I was almost in a complete collapse when he pulled back and said, “Stay with me. You have to move, and you have to be strong.” He supported me as we started down the trail.
We swapped names; Christian asked me when I’d last eaten or drank anything, which only elicited a blank stare. He insisted that I eat something; I had a Lara bar in my pack, so he got it out and stuck it in my hand, telling me to eat. Every now and then, my legs just gave out and he supported me when I wobbled. I cried a bit, and Christian said again, “Stay with me, Leah. I’m going to stay with you all the way; I won’t leave.”
We came back into the trees; he told me it was warmer but I was still shaking uncontrollably; I can’t remember much of the first bit other than I asked him how far and he replied, “It’s a little ways.” I think I had some weird notion that he’d lead me to a car somewhere close by and, when reality hit—that I still had to trek my way to the aid station, which was God knows how far (I know enough to realize that “a little ways” translates into “it’s further away than I’d like to tell you”), my spirits dipped. We also came back to single track Slip ‘n Slide greasy trail which, with my shaky legs and depleted energy, was almost unmanageable for me. Again, Christian supported me; I put my hands on his shoulders and he went first, the two of us moving as a team.
Gradually, my shivering calmed down. He kept at me to eat and pulled out some of his Gu Chomps when I’d finished the Lara bar. He’d put them in my hand, one at a time, and make me eat them. My stomach was woozy and every now and then, I simply had to stop to regroup myself. He talked constantly to me and, after a time, full thoughts came back into my head and I started to participate more in the conversation.
During this time, another rescue person appeared on the trail. Christian told him he was staying with me. I think there was some unspoken communication between them about my condition. The other guy was specifically looking for two people, and so he proceeded on. I asked Christian if he’d come looking for me, thinking that my teammates had sent someone out; no — he’d been at the aid station waiting to pace a friend when the race directors made the decision to call the race and stop people from going out on the second leg or continuing on their 50-mile journeys. At that time, 23 people were out on the trail, unaccounted for, and Christian wanted to help. And so he’d gone out and simply run into me.
I asked him again how far and this time, I said, “I want an honest answer.” “Ok — see that ridge down there? We’re going to go downhill through some nasty mud, have a little climb up, and then we’ll be at the aid station. Maybe another 30 minutes.” I couldn’t even think to look at my watch. Somehow, knowing what I needed to do helped me pull it together.
Another rescue person came up; he and Christian stopped to talk but I was afraid if I paused, I’d never get started again, so I kept going downhill. The sun was out a bit and there was grass next to the track, so I channeled my mountain troll shuffle. Christian caught back up to me.
We talked the rest of the way down; I found out he was a Cat. 1 cyclist who got injured and turned to trail running about 5 years ago. We talked about Lance and Landis, his kids and scouts, Breaking Away and Kevin Costner, and running, and I have no idea whether I even made any sense; it’s all a blur. I know I talked to him about being upset about what I’d done and having to be rescued, and he told me over and over again that what happened wasn’t my fault and not to apologize. And the next thing I knew, we were turning into the aid station.
Safe and Sound
When I didn’t have to do anything, I turned into a piece of jelly. The aid station volunteers immediately wrapped me in a sleeping bag (it was very nice and clean, and I was a horribly wet and muddy messy). Christian got me a cup of chicken broth and made me drink it; another volunteer started her car, turning on the seat warmers; they removed my pack and wet jacket, rewrapped me in the sleeping bag, and placed me in the car. I have no idea how long I sat there…but at some time, while sipping my broth and a cup of Coke, I stopped my watch at 7:27.47
The medical director, Sherwin, checked on me, and Christian kept tabs on me as well. All of this is kind of fuzzy; they asked if I had friends to contact but I didn’t know any cell phone numbers (I’d left my useless phone in the hotel room since there had been no service while we were at the course talk). Some time passed, and Christian and Sherwin were going to go to the Mink Creek aid station and wanted to know if I wanted to go there. It sounded like a good plan, or it may have just been that, like some bedraggled, abandoned baby duck, I’d bonded to Christian and was afraid to be on my own; in any case, I opted to go along for the ride in hopes that some of the Austin people would be at the finish of the second leg.
As we drove into the aid station, I saw Jonathan Wicks walking down the road and I pointed out that he was one of my friends. They took me into the aid station, sat me in front of a heater, and Christian ran off to chase down Jonathan. The volunteers there wrapped me in a blanket and put a beanie on my head, pushing a cup of hot chocolate in my hand. People who had been out were finishing the 50K distance. I felt guilty sitting there when cold runners were coming in and I just wanted to disappear.
Jonathan came in; he’d been able to run his leg of the relay and, while he’d had the foresight to have a heavy jacket with him, he’d forgotten gloves. Even with gloves, my own hands were so swollen that you couldn’t see my knuckles, and my wedding ring was a submerged trench in my puffy finger. Jonathan hadn’t been able to find anybody when he finished nor did he have a means of contacting anyone. We sat there for awhile until Brenda Rogers Brown appeared out of the crowd. She said to Jonathan, “Oh my God, we’ve been looking all over for you. Let’s get you back.” I said, “Can you take me back, too?” and Brenda turned to say “sure” and then screamed out, “LEAH! We’ve been looking for you!” She had not realized it was me bundled up in the blanket.
It turns out that the Austin crew had been told I’d dropped at the first aid station…and so for hours, they’d assumed I’d come in in all the chaos and gotten a ride back. Evidently, when I’d been on the wrong portion of trail right after the aid station, the race director had caught Elizabeth and the other woman as they’d started up the climb to the ridge and told them to turn around and go back, which they did. I came back down the trail with the sweeper, who had not told me to return to the aid station.
Not knowing that the run had been called or that dangerous conditions existed up ahead, I proceeded up the climb to the ridge after the race director had cleared all the runners he could from the trail. When Elizabeth got back to the aid station, she asked about me and was told I had dropped. The volunteers had all left and there was no one to confirm this with, only a list.
When time had passed and the group couldn’t track me down, Kelly began driving back and forth from aid station to aid station looking for me, only to be told repeatedly that I had dropped and was presumed safe. Joe Prusaitis was to the point of organizing a search group, as no one believed I was back. So when Christian headed out, thinking there were 23 people unaccounted for on the course, I was not even one of them. When Brenda stumbled upon me and Jonathan at Mink Creek, she and Kelly were making another frantic search sweep between City Creek and Mink Creek. Elizabeth had even called the local hospital to see if I’d been transported there.
I was very shaken and exhausted. My friends whisked me back to the hotel. I think I took about an hour long shower. My socks and shorts were so wet and mud covered that I actually just threw them away. I don’t know how long I talked to my husband on the phone, but he patiently listened to me relieve the whole thing. I crawled into bed and tried to get warm until about 7:00PM, when Kelly and Jason collected me for a perfect dinner and beers at the bowling alley with the rest of the crew.
I slept like the dead afterwards and woke up feeling great. The whole thing seems like a surreal nightmare now, a weird set of circumstances that led to an unbelievable (and hopefully never to be relived) experience.
He shrugged me off, saying he didn’t do anything special, but I truly believe that Christian Johnson saved me from severe hypothermia and possibly worse. He was a miracle. Thank you, Christian.