Bighorn 100 (48)

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

 “I found that when I’m ground down to a fine dust physically, my mental excitement and passion for running dwindles,” – Mike Wolfe, professional ultra runner and former Bighorn 100 record holder, quoted in “Running on Empty”

The Bighorn 100 is a classic mountain ultra race that takes place in the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming. The course is an out-and-back, meaning you run roughly 48 miles out to a certain point, then turn around and re-trace your steps all the way to the beginning, and add a few miles of running down a dirt road to land you in the town park where the finish line and festivities are, as well as round out the number of miles run at exactly 100. The course is rugged and remote. The vast majority of aid stations along the route have to be packed in by horse, as there is no road access. Although it is not designated as wilderness, the areas run through are waaaay out there. And while the course profile doesn’t make it look quite as hard as many other famous mountain ultras, the roughness of the track along the way more than makes up for its apparent lack of vertical.

I found myself toeing the start line of the 2015 running of the Bighorn 100 for basically one single reason: to gain a qualifier for the Hardrock Hundred, another ultra adventure that happens to take place around my home in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The Bighorn 100 is one of the few races tough enough to be included on the list of qualifiers that an aspirant must complete in order to gain access to the lottery for entry into Hardrock. All that said, I was dreading the painful experience that I knew was to come, while trying to tell myself I was up for the challenge.

The race began at 11:00 am on a Friday morning in the blazing sun of the hottest day yet this year. The roughly 330 runners and their attending friends, family, crews, pacers, etc. all huddled in massive piles of humanity beneath the few shade trees near the start as the sun beat down on the dry earth around us. Nervous, bubbly anticipation coursed through just about everyone’s veins. Strategies were discussed, the plea for the race to just start already was often heard, and worries about the hot weather were frequently expressed. Eventually the time to start had come, and we all lined up and began our respective individual adventures, all in each other’s wonderful company.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

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Jemez Mountain 50

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good... Elizabeth Riley photo.

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good… Elizabeth Riley photo.

“Go toward your fears.”Dean Potter

“The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala

After twenty miles of technical, rocky trail running at the Jemez Mountain 50 mile race in Los Alamos, New Mexico, this past Memorial Day weekend, I realized that this race was probably not going to end the way that I wanted it to. Although at that time I still felt relatively good, I was obviously slowing down. This fact wasn’t observed by marking split times on my watch, but instead by the steady stream of runners passing me one-by-one and slowly pulling away into the distance. For the first four hours I had run fast and strong near the front of the pack, but with my position continually declining and over 30 miles of running left to go, I could see that this race had all the makings of a classic death-march.

A “Death-March” in an ultra-running race is the very unpleasant effect of having not correctly paced yourself for the distance you are trying to cover, and thus reaching a point of physical degeneration that is exquisitely painful and can seem to persist just about forever. It is a condition from which there is no recovery, until you choose to quit moving and sit down, that is. Running long distances inevitably causes muscular damage, and running faster causes the damage to happen sooner. Muscles break down and begin to tighten up. Tight muscles cause limited mobility, ruining proper running form. A heap of accumulated miles induces pain – in the joints, in the connective tissue, and in the muscles themselves if they start to cramp. Add the pain and the limited mobility together and you get an ever-decreasing running speed, until running stops being an option and you are simply walking. But even at a walk the pain doesn’t leave, it persists as strongly as ever, and the amount of time you must endure to the finish only increases as your pace gets slower and slower. Staring down a trail that is twenty miles long, that will take a seeming eternity to finish, with jolts of pain at every step and smarter runners jogging past making you look silly… This is the Death-March.

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Black Canyon Ascent

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

As the dense grey clouds slowly lowered over the rim of the Black Canyon, signaling immanent rain on a quiet Saturday morning, Jan Peart, face adorned with a gigantic smile, began banging on a giant round gong. The peace now sufficiently disturbed and the few people milling about alerted to the arrival of the first runner, the way was paved for Peter Maksimow to come sprinting across the finish line to win the 2015 Black Canyon Ascent.

Sitting inside around frosty beer mugs and a blazing warm fire on the evening before while the rain and intermittent snow dumped down outside, Elizabeth and I wondered what we should do the following day. The forecast called for more of the same dreary weather that had kept us inside and restless with pent-up energy for the last week. The prospect of another Saturday spent trying to get in a long run through freezing rain was not inspiring. Hungry for more writing and photography opportunities, and figuring the worst-case scenario was we would meet some new people, we came up with the idea to check out the Black Canyon Ascent race outside of Montrose the next morning. Our plan was to take some photos and write an article and see if we couldn’t find a place to get them published. So the next morning found us scouting locations to take photos and watch the race on the road up to the Black Canyon.

This year marked the 40th running of the Black Canyon Ascent, making it one of the oldest running races in Colorado, and the second oldest on the Western Slope (the Imogene Pass Run is in its 41st year in 2015). It starts at the corner of US 50, just outside of Montrose, and the East Rim Road, which climbs for six miles to the entrance to the Black Canyon National Park. The road is paved the entire way, but the climb is continuous and rises over 2,000 vertical feet to the finish. Only in the last half mile, once inside the national park, does the road dip slightly on its way to the first parking lot where the finish line is located.

On this Saturday morning the light was perfect and so were the running conditions. The rain had ceased, but low lying clouds and fog hanging in all the nearby valleys made for quite an impressive scene. Although more rain was in the forecast, the sun decided to peek out from behind the clouds at just the moment that the race started, enhancing the already perfect setting. The runners quickly dispersed into a long line of very brightly clad dots along the road as they all settled into their own pace for the climb.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Immediately gapping the rest of the field were two Colorado Springs mountain runners Peter Maksimow and Simon Gutierrez. Maksimow was looking to defend his title from the previous year and hoping to challenge the course record, while Gutierrez was also a former champion. They were running neck and neck by us at our first photo perch roughly one mile up the road. Continue reading

Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

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The Experience that was Meant to Be – DNF at the UROC 100k

“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now. As you become more deeply aware of this one step, you realize that it already contains within itself all the other steps as well as the destination. This one step then becomes transformed into an expression of perfection, an act of great beauty and quality. It will have taken you into Being, and the light of Being will shine through it. This is both the purpose and fulfillment of your inner journey, the journey into yourself.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

“YOU SHOULD ALWAYS GO FUTHER THAN YOU SHOULD GO” – painting on the wall at Cafe Mobius in Silverton

I walked slowly and gingerly through the mud and melted snow which made up the Grand Traverse trail along the top of Vail Mountain, pain and stiffness torturing me with my every movement. The late afternoon light was exquisite–warm, yellow, comforting. The wind blew gently from the snow covered Mount of the Holy Cross on the horizon to my left, over my head, and on to the similarly adorned and equally as beautiful Gore Range across the valley to my right. I was somewhere around 45 miles and 8 hours into the UROC 100k trail race and I had just decided to give it up, I was walking to the next aid station where I would drop from the race. Surprisingly I felt totally at peace with the decision and knew that this was exactly what was meant to be on this day. I happily plodded along in the sun, watching the hawks soar overhead, and trying to understand all the lessons that this experience was supposed to teach me…

I had entered the Ultra Race of Champions about seven weeks prior after a lengthy discussion with a newly made friend, Edward Sandor, at a table in Cafe Mobius in Silverton, on a dreadful day where it was pouring rain outside. We had started up a conversation after noticing that we were each runners, something which was pretty obvious as we were both wearing running clothes. He hails from Minnesota and is a seasoned ultra-runner, touring the mountain west with his wife Alicia and their dog, running crazy long mountain trail races along the way. I took the opportunity to try to glean any nuggets of wisdom I possibly could from someone who runs much further than I typically do. The most prescient of these nuggets was that if you wait until you feel you are ready to run crazy long ultra races, you will never do it, cause really you are never ready. You just have to pull the trigger and jump into the deep end, and as far as he was concerned, a person couldn’t possibly do so soon enough. The conversation eventually ended with him telling me, “I will be extremely disappointed if I hear you didn’t end up running UROC!” So, buoyed by his belief in me and suckered by his “wisdom,” I registered a few days later.


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The Silverton Alpine Marathon

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.” Don Juan, The Teachings of Don Juan


“Set a goal to achieve something that is so big, so exhilarating that it excites you and scares you at the same time. It must be a goal that is so appealing, so much in line with your spiritual core, that you can’t get it out of your mind. If you do not get chills when you set a goal, you are not setting big enough goals.” Bob Proctor 

The beautiful San Juans

For a while now, I have been living my life in a mode where only one thing matters above all else: personal growth and self-betterment. After sampling spiritual practices from all over the world and trying to integrate what I like into my own practice, while also realizing that any true path to self-betterment will include a spiritual aspect, I have come to the conclusion that the path which will lead me to the most personal growth is one of committing myself to being the very best that I can possibly be. Nothing less than actually knowing that I have realized every ounce of my potential is good enough. I don’t think it matters what activity or discipline I choose to pursue, it is the intent that matters. Whether or not there is money to be gained from this path is also irrelevant, as the true wealth I gain will be experienced in the opportunities, friendships, and realizations made, the higher vibrations attained, while running this disciplined and committed path. Only once in my life do I ever remember committing all my energy for an extended period of time towards something that I knew I could eventually accomplish, yet was never-the-less very difficult to stay committed to, and I often look back at it as one of my most rewarding lessons. This time I plan to go way beyond that, because this time I have no idea what I might be able to accomplish…

I want to know just how far I can go, how high I can fly, how much inspiration I can disseminate into this world, what it feels like to actually know that I could not have possibly tried harder! I am going to follow this path as long as it takes! I don’t have to eventually be the very best, I just have to eventually be MY very best. It seems to me that in order to accomplish the most that you actually can, then you may need to set goals for yourself that may frankly seem totally ludicrous. I have set such goals for myself, and indeed they are so ludicrous that I do not even feel comfortable sharing them yet. I still laugh at myself when I think of these goals, “what a crazy nut!” These goals are so big that they simultaneously “excite and scare” me. It may in fact be possible to accomplish these goals, we shall have to wait and see how this mystery develops, but if in fact they prove to be impossible for me, at least they are big enough that I will end up at my limit trying to reach them! “Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars!”

If you know anything at all about me, and I am guessing you do, then you may be able to guess that my path of choice is mountain running. That’s the path with heart for me, and so I happily and blindly follow it! I can surrender everything to the mountains, and trust in them absolutely to teach me everything that I will need to know, and so I will…

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Upchuck 50k

The Upchuck 50k race took place in Soddy-Daisy just outside of Chattanooga, TN, on Saturday Nov. 10th, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to compete. I had grown to be friends with Wild Trails race director Randy Whorton over the past year of trying to collaborate on a Chattanooga Trails guidebook, and thus kept asking him if I was to fly out for a race, which one should it be? He always answered that the Upchuck was one of the finest ultra courses around, and so I booked my week long work trip around the early November race.

The Upchuck is heralded as an underground and low-key race of sorts, in that it stays small in nature by design, and has minimal aid stations or course markings other than the ubiquitous white blazes on trees that mark the Cumberland Trail, which it follows for its entirety. It is a point to point course which traverses three major river gorges – Rock Creek, Possum Creek, and Soddy Creek – each providing incredible terrain which had a unique feel compared to the other gorges. Adding to the inherent beauty was the fact that the under-canopy was still lit up in bright fall yellows, oranges, and reds, while the upper canopy had already mostly shed its leaves, providing openings to greater vistas.

The idea for the race came about after two local runners – Matt Sims and Chad Womack – set out about five years ago to run this roughly 30 mile segment of the Cumberland Trail. The story is summed up nicely in the video below made by my friend Andrew Kornylak, but the short version is that at mile 18 the trail crosses a highway where there is a convenience store. Feeling iffy and low on energy, Chad bought an excessive amount of munchies in the convenience store and proceeded to scarf his entire supply in a few short minutes, despite whatever running wisdom might have suggested that he do otherwise. A few short miles down the trail and the belly purging began, not to be completed until their run was over, roughly 12 miles later. They later decided that the run was such a classic tour that it deserved its own race, and the name “Upchuck” of course seemed appropriate.

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