One word: Endurance
Short story: The Man is entirely a badass.
Long story: I am finally documenting Nick’s huge accomplishment: running 100 miles of trail in Steamboat Springs! I wanted to put a lot of thought and care into this recap, and you’ll probably undestand why it took so long after you see what transpired.
NOTE: I also think it’s important to mention that this is a recap of my experience as crew chief, pacer, and fiancé of someone who accomplished one of the most incredible physical feats a person can endure. You’ll notice that some of this is about me and what I went through… because it is exhausting even for those supporting the runners. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to take on that distance myself. The great thing is that Nick’s friend is creating a documentary on his experience, so when that’s up and running, I’ll share it with you so you have a firsthand account of the 100 miles, straight from the horse’s mouth! 🙂
First of all, we need to revisit about a year and a half ago, March of 2016, when Nick ran the rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon with a group of good friends. The run starts at the top of one side of the canyon, goes down into it and all the way across to the other cliff, and then turns around and finishes where they started. That’s 53 miles of craziness— one of many ultra-distance training runs and races, and the first of three 50-mile races leading up to the 100. The Grand Canyon run took him around 17 hours, with unforgiving climbs and downhills. Ouch!
Next was the Leadville 50, in July of 2016. I wasn’t able to crew that race; it was a long day of tech rehearsal for Grease, so I had to send him off with salt & vinegar potato chips and hope he crushed it. And of course he did! He finished in 10:58:53 like a boss. (I also finished my long day of tech in a similar amount of time. Ha!)
In September, 2016, Nick ran the Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler, which I documented here. That was the first time I crewed for him, and in retrospect, it was a breeze! The man finished the grueling course (which runs up the ski mountain and to Rabbit Ears Pass and back down) in less than 12 hours: 11:52:08.
I ran the last four miles down the mountain with him and his ever-so-supportive friends. I remember being so impressed with his support system. This was just a glimpse into the trail running/ultra-endurance community, and I liked what I saw.
Around January of this year, I wanted another race to train for, so I signed up for the Platte River Half Marathon and Nick jumped on board to support me. This was merely a blip on his training radar, of course! Shortly after registering for this half, Nick decided to register for the Run Rabbit Run 100.
Then in June, he ran the North Fork 50k (roughly 31 miles) with his good friends Scott 1, Scott 2, and Maurice. 😉 I “crewed” this race, but it was barely any work at all. It was laid back and fun to be on the sidelines, and I even snuck a run in. He finished in 6:09:47, looking strong. The very next day, we got engaged! He planned a surprise party and everything. Who can do all of that in one weekend?! (The next day I started rehearsals for Hello Dolly, and the following weekend we adopted Harper. Times were a-busy, to say the least.)
With a brand new 11-week-old pup, one week into being a stay-at-home puppy dad (the glories of a teacher’s life…), Nick sprained his ankle and had to stay off of it for at least three weeks. Talk about a wrench in the mix! Not only could he not continue his training for the 100, he could barely take Harper out (who, mind you, needed to be carried up and down three flights of stairs at the time).
He was bound to the house, but he made the best of it: making bread, going to physical therapy, doing ankle-strengthening exercises, and slowly working his way back into running again. I can’t even imagine how this dark period must’ve tested his patience and resolve. Little did we know that it would “all be good mental training” for a very large test to come.
The Days Prior
Thankfully, his dedicated paid off, and he was able to recover his ankle and get right back on the ultra-running horse. He got in a few more big training runs and when race weekend came, “prepared” doesn’t even begin to cover it: He’d been packing and organizing his gear for days (maybe even weeks); he created the most extensive spreadsheet of crew instructions you’ve ever seen; and he had booked his crew a perfect AirBNB right in the heart of Steamboat Springs, less than 5 minutes from the start and the main aid station.
Nick’s mom Barbara came into town a few days before the race, and we all drove to Steamboat (Harper in tow!) on Thursday morning, with a lot of excitement and even more apprehension for what the weekend would hold (each of us had our own worries).
I have to admit, I was quite compartmentalized from the whole thing… I don’t think I could wrap my head around 100 miles of mountain trail, and I felt really nervous about being crew chief, which is a big responsibility. I hadn’t even studied his meticulous notes and directions until the night before. A lot of this was due to our crazy hectic life, but some of it was due to sheer intimidation and worry that I might disappoint Nick or hinder his success in some way.
After settling into the AirBNB (a cozy house with plenty of room, comfy beds and couches, and a yard of Harps!), Barbara, Nick, and I went to dinner in town. At the table, I started to really notice my sore throat. I remembered that, while in Seattle the weekend prior, one of Hilary’s twin boys was diagnosed with strep throat. I immediately went to a clinic and got a rapid strep test, which came back negative. I was worried I wouldn’t get antibiotics and that I’d either get Nick sick during his race (ah!) or squander my role as crew chief by being incapacitated. Thankfully, the doctor’s opinion was that my tonsillitis was bacterial, and I started a 10-day run of antibiotics that evening. Phew!
Thankfully I was done with the doctor and the pharmacy right in the nick of time; we needed to go to the race meeting, and Nick needed to check in and get his bib, etc. During the meeting, the race directors and volunteers warned about the heavy smoke that was sitting on top of Steamboat from wildfires. Visibility was more than five miles, which meant all was good to go, but they had a doctor speak about the health risks, which was a tad worrisome. Things like what inhalation of micro-particles can do to your lungs… and how running 100 miles at this elevation is the equivalent of breathing a week’s worth of (smoke-filled!) air in 36 hours or less. Not exactly “Eye of the Tiger” pre-race excitement. Nick said he wasn’t worried and that he was amped to get home, prep, and (try to) get some sleep.
That night, while Nick was sorting his things, I finally snapped out of my mental fog and studied all of the crew instructions, hardcore. I translated the spreadsheet to Vanessa-ese, a line-less white paper of my own shorthand and all the tiny details I couldn’t let myself forget. For example: “At mile 41, make sure Nick has his poles and night gear. Ask how he’s doing. Give him a hug and make him sit down!” and “After running miles 41 to 45 with Nick to Fish Creek Falls, go home and let Harper out! Feed her dinner and pack up for a night at Dry Lake. Take the shuttle and bring sleeping bag, Nick’s gear, chairs, etc.”
Sounds silly, but in the hype and hysteria, it’s easy to forget really important things. Especially when you’re sick. And when you become sleep-drived, like we all would.
The Big Day
The morning had finally come! Nick’s friends Jon and Scott were running the 100, too, and all three crews were hanging out, eagerly anticipating their duties while the runners excitedly awaited the start.
I was feeling so much better than morning after a few antibiotics and cramming before the final. All I could feel was pride and excitement for Nick! At 8:00 am we saw them off as they ran up the mountain, and then went back to the house to study our next moves.
At mile 20, Nick ran through the main aid station, Olympian Hall, and looked happy and strong! He also was right on target with the items he’d estimated in his crew instructions spreadsheet. He ran out and then back through Olympian Hall again at mile 41, at which point I was to pace him to mile 45, Fish Creek Falls. The stretch took us through town and up a steady incline at night, so we ended up power-hiking a lot of it. So much of ultra-running is about hiking, which is something I’m still wrapping my head around. It was fun to talk to him and hear how the first 40 miles went: perfectly!
At Fish Creek Falls, I passed him off to his friend Amir, who would be pacing the next 20 miles or so with him. I kissed Nick goodbye and told him I’d see him at mile 63 in the middle of the night, up at Dry Lake.
In the meantime, I took the shuttle back to Olympian Hall and Barbara and I drove back to the house. Nick’s other crew members, Maurice and Jesse, were stationed at the house, as well. I took Harper out and fed her dinner and Barbara settled in for a night at home while Maurice, Jesse, and I changed into cold-weather gear and packed up for our long stint at Dry Lake. Jesse would be picking up where Amir left off, from mile 63 to 72, and then Maurice would bring Nick home the last 30+ miles. (These guys are amazing, by the way, but more on that later.)
Jesse and I took what felt like the 800 bags we’d packed onto the shuttle and got to Dry Lake around 10 or 10:30 pm. Maurice stayed at the house to get some shut-eye before running a casual 30 miles (an ultramarathon on its own) the next day!
The temperature was forecast to be in the 20s, but it was in the 40s or so, which was a pleasant surprise for sick little ole me. At this point, I was pretty miserable. Running and power-hiking just those four miles with Nick took a toll on me… my tonsils were basically snow-capped and I’d only been on antibiotics for 24 hours. It was past my old-lady bedtime. I was coughing and trying to get some sleep in the rocky ditch we’d huddled in with our crew friends. Boo hoo, baby Vanessa! I kept reminding myself that I was mildly uncomfortable, and that Nick was out there running ONE HUNDRED MILES and probably not very comfortable, either, as I’d be seeing him shortly, at mile 63, which would be the longest distance he’s ever run in his life at that point.
His spreadsheet had him slated to come through Dry Lake at mile 63 at around 2:00 am. First came Jon, who was in the lead of the three running the 100, and then came Scott an hour or two later, and still no sign of Nick. His notes had said that, at this point, it’d be possible he’d come through any time between 1:00 am and 4:00 am, so it still wasn’t too alarming. Then 4:00 am came. Still no sign of Nick…
8+ Hours of Hell
Around 5:00 am, we finally saw Nick and Amir. Amir looked baffled and defeated, and soon we saw why: Nick was a mere shadow of himself. Since about 1 am, he’d bonked and hit a wall of some kind. He’d refused the fuel Amir offered, and instead of eating at least 100-200 calories per hour, he was averaging 100 for three hours. He was run-down, zombie-like, the way someone looks immediately after fainting and coming to. As the distance miles is wont to do, 63 miles had stripped him down to the bare bones of his mental will power. He collapsed into the chair and hugged me. He tried to eat everything we offered, but complained of reflux issues.
We got him to eat some high-carb and high-sodium foods, like chicken broth and ramen noodles from the aid stations. It’s all a blur at that point. [Of course, it’s important to note that the runners don’t sleep.] Finally, after some recalibrating, he was ready to run the next 9 miles with Jesse, which was an out-and-back, so we expected to see him in about 2-3 hours at Dry Lake again.
At this point, Maurice had arrived at Dry Lake, ready to run the last 30 miles with Nick to the finish line. He and I deliberated a lot during our wait. We wondered if Nick had bounced back from the food he’d eaten. We calculated the pace he’d need to maintain to finish within the 36-hour cut-off. We wondered where he was when four hours had passed and there was no sign of Jesse or Nick. Then four-and-a-half hours.
At 9:30 am, when we’d expected to see him at 8:00 am, as some of the last runners were coming through, when the Dry Lake aid station was starting to break down their things, we decided to walk down the trail they should’ve been running up. We wanted to meet them head-on and assess the situation. We passed a couple of what had to be 80-year-old men running the 100, and after hearing our descriptions of Nick and Jesse, the men assured us they were just down the trail behind them a bit. We finally found them.
Jesse was walking about 10 feet ahead of Nick, who was not as much walking as sauntering. He looked defeated, dejected, dead. One look at me and he broke down in my arms. He was lifeless. I took his arm and walked him back to the aid station, with the guys close behind, and I wondered if I should say the forbidden words: “You don’t have to finish. You can quit. You’ve already gone so far… farther than you’ve ever run before!”
This was the attitude I’d had in the weeks prior to the race, and it came from good intentions. I didn’t want him to push himself too far, get injured, or worse. At the race meeting, the directors warned of giving this option. “It’s meant to be hard,” they said. “It’s going to hurt even more than you think it will. And at a certain point, probably the last half of the race, your body will want to quit. Do not quit. You cannot quit.” I felt a responsibility to not be the newbie crew chief who let him quit. The thing is… he never said he wanted to quit. He never complained. He was just utterly exhausted and had gotten completely off the wagon with his nutrition and fuel.
So when we got back to the aid station, I trusted my intuition to stop feeding him carbs and sodium, and instead, decided to try high-fat and -protein foods, since I’d noticed other runners doing the same at this point. (One woman, who was the fittest woman I’ve ever seen in my life, was fueling with McDonald’s cheeseburgers, sans the bun. NO LIE.)
I grabbed a million little turkey and cheese pinwheels from the aid station, and he ate them pretty quickly. Maurice, Jesse, and I were hovered over him as he sat in the chair, all of us nervous and concerned. Poor Jesse was also pretty defeated, as I can’t imagine saying, “Hey Nick, how about some food?” and hearing “No” a thousand times makes you feel like you’re successfully pacing and crewing someone. He and Amir did incredibly humble work, pushing themselves physically, no doubt, but also mentally, trying to overcompensate for Nick’s negative mental state.
Maurice had been resting and gearing up to run 30 miles, and at this point Nick looked like he might crumble just standing up. Maurice said something like, “Hey Nick, what do you say we just go out and try to run these last 30 miles? We’ve got nothing better to do, right?” I knew Nick was going to finish when I heard his response: “Let’s just pack up my vest as if I’m going to keep going, and I’ll see how I feel when I stand up.”
Exhausted but still hopeful, Jesse and I packed up all our things and headed back to the house for some much-needed rest. We filled Barbara in with the details and then I tried to get an hour or so of sleep. But I couldn’t. I kept wondering if we’d made the right decision letting him continue in such a state. I imagined Nick and Maurice stranded between aid stations, needing immediate medical assistance and having no cell service.
Finally, just as I was starting to nod off, I got a text from Maurice: “At mile 83, moving well, gonna keep going.” We were so excited to hear it! It wad been 1 and 2 hours since we saw him at mile 72, which means he really turned his pace around. Shortly after, we received another text: “At mile 91!”
You should’ve seen Barbara, Jesse, and me! We were ecstatic, jumping up and down, and scurrying to get our things ready! We had to rush to the finish line, so that Barbara could find a comfortable seat and Jesse and I could take the gondola up to run that last 5 miles with Nick and Maurice.
When I saw Nick, he was smiling and moving along swimmingly. It was a completely different person. Later I learned that Maurice stepped up to the plate and hit a homer with his pacing. He took all of Nick’s food and made him eat every 30 minutes. To get him to make pace, he’d say things like, “Just run for 500 more yards”— random distances that Nick couldn’t quite track. Fifteen minutes later, he’d add a new one, “Okay, just 100 meters more,” etc. Brilliant! He also gave Nick small tasks like focusing on his heels bouncing off the ground. Step by step, instruction by instruction, Maurice paced Nick to the finish with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare. Truly, truly incredible. He finished in 34:42:16.
Just steps away from the finish line, Nick stopped to hug all of his friends and family, some of whom had already finished their 100 miles and left their sanctuaries of rest to return, just for him. That is true friendship, folks.
This group of people is extraordinary. Only three of them ran the 100. The rest were crew and pacers, there to make sure their friends finished what they started. The community involved in ultra-endurance running is something I’ve never experienced before. Two weeks later, I think I’ve caught the bug. No, not the lingering cold… but the distance running bug. We’ll see. I’m considering a 20-mile race as my gateway drug. 🙂
After the immediate high wore off, we ate pizza for dinner and were in bed by 9:30 pm.
The next morning the whole gang went out for breakfast to celebrate these three guys’ achievements. They look pretty darn solid for having run 100 miles in less than 36 hours with no sleep!
I am still in awe of Nick. Not once did he ever say, “I want to quit,” even though his recollections include having made up his mind he was going to quit several times. And while running 100 miles can be a breeze for some endurance athletes, I am even more amazed that Nick was able to struggle so hard for so long (eight. whole. hours. on. no. sleep.) and still make such a comeback. It’s one thing to ride the momentum of a great run; it’s an entirely different thing to turn a giant barge around like that. Just, so much respect.
AND he turns 34 tomorrow. Happy birthday, babe!