by Nikhil Shah
Bonnevier (mile 39): I had just made the first hard cutoff (1:30 a.m.) at Fat Dog 120 with barely 30 minutes to spare. I had been extremely conservative all day…sticking to the Day 1 plan. If I were going to make it on Day 2, Day 1 would have to be flawless. It was anything but flawless. In a perfect world I would have a cushion of at least five hours at the finish. Thus began the mad chase to dodge the cutoffs for next 83 miles, on razor thin margins.
The first 18 miles were glorious – a hard 5,000 foot climb with insane views at the start followed by a long and flowing descent into Ashnola River Road (mile 18), a taste of what was to come for rest of the race. However, the heat had cooked me all day on the exposed ridges and in the alpine forests. After exiting Ashnola a little after 4:15 p.m. I had not been able to consume any calories. My appetite had been completely shutdown.
I exited Bonnevier at 1 a.m. with the goal of hitting the second hard cutoff at Heather in five hours. With night gear on, I started the aggressive climb to the top, 13 miles away. There would be very little running, however. While I ran uphill on grades up to 25% during training, race day strategy would call for a steady power-hike. By the time I hit the aid station a little past 6 a.m., I had not eaten in the past 14 hours. Surprisingly, I was able to move fairly well. Cooler temperatures at night helped. As I approached the aid station, my hunger opened up a bit, so I had some bisque, two small half burritos, and some coffee. I exited the aid station with 12 minutes to spare and started my rolling ascent and descent into Nicomen Lake 10 miles away, a midpoint.
I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life. The mountain ridges were awash in sunshine. The air, cool and crisp, was slowly warming up, with a promise of even higher temperatures that would continue to cook me on Day 2. The 360-degree views, the wild flowers, and the occasional company of fellow racers made this section very enjoyable. The cut-off clock was still ticking mercilessly. Every step would have to be purposeful. Getting to Nicomen Lake would involve a steep and technical descent. If this were a training run, I imagined bombing down the trail with fresh legs and no adverse consequences, followed by a dip in the lake. A guy is allowed to dream a little in the middle of the race. As I exited the aid station a little after 11 a.m., I briefly reflected on the fact that Day 1 was behind me. The Day 2 plan allowed me some luxury of calibrated aggressive pacing, with emphasis still on holding back, while continuing to dodge the cut-offs.
The path to Cayuse Flats (mile 75) was about 10K of downhill followed by 5 miles of rolling terrain. The aid station had a target time suggestion of 2:30 p.m. If racers were to make the next hard cutoff at Cascades (mile 80) by 5:00 p.m., they were advised to depart Cayuse by 2:30. These 11 miles to Cayuse would be my first true attempt at continuous running. The day was getting hotter by the minute. My appetite was still iffy, but better. My running was interspersed by aggressive hiking to ensure I was holding back enough to afford me the finish line push. Could I make 11 miles in less than 3.5 hours? A sense of desperation was taking over. I decided I wouldn’t go down without a hard fight.
I got into Cayuse a little after 2:45 p.m. Per past data, for a 40 hour finish, it took an average of 1 hour 45 minutes to make it from Cayuse to Cascades. I was slower than average. Five miles in, 2 hours 15 minutes seemed doable. I was out of time. Again. The weight of the mountains came crushing down on me. Failure seemed imminent. I checked in with the course director, Peter Watson. He encouraged me to continue on…”it’s entirely possible,” he said. The volunteer at the aid station made HUGE wave motions with her hands in synchrony. What Peter’s words didn’t say, his eyes squarely laid it on me. The steep rolling terrain would demand its fair share of attention and agony. It was a now-or-never moment. The burning blisters on my heels would have to take their number and wait in line to complain. The searing nerves on the right side of the right forefoot were told to shut the fuck up. If I would survive this round, I would then deal with the consequences of what was to ensue during the rest of the race. I took off like my life depended on it. A max effort on the ups and a free-fall on the downs…that is what it would take to exit this “hell tunnel” in time. “Drop your hands, Nikhil. Let go…fly!” I told myself. There would be no more calibration of effort. Primal instincts took over. Cascade came fast! I was out of the hurt locker and sitting with my crew drinking a smoothie in 1 hour 15 minutes. It was perversely satisfying.
As I picked up Jimmy and we headed down the course for next 20 miles I apprised him that my legs were feeling done. He gave me time to recover but didn’t let me forget to keep moving. With a half smile, and a silent celebration in my head, I told him that I finally felt like I would finish race. I was wrong. The night felt dead. It was warm and muggy, completely devoid of any breeze. I would hear and feel the buzz of the notorious dinosaur-sized mosquitos, followed by a flap of wings in front of my face. The bats were snacking on the bugs. As we rolled into Shawatum (mile 92) at 9:45 p.m., we were promptly reminded that the target time was 9:00 p.m. We left quickly with the goal of getting to Skyline (mile 101) in no more than three hours. Skyline had a hard cutoff at 1:30 a.m. and we needed time to prep and be interviewed for the last 20 miles. It was one of the worst trails so far. Technical, overgrown, steep, extremely rugged. It felt like we were running through obstacles. What followed felt like a half-marathon effort that lasted 2 hours 45 minutes. We got into Skyline to a huge cheer. I picked up Amy as my pacer #2. I was interviewed by a race official for my mental state. I was told point-blank that if I left this aid station the odds were not in my favor that I would make the final cut off in 10 hours. Was I ok with that? This point was emphasized. Many racers dropped at this station. After a brief exchange of rational thoughts, I was given a release to proceed. There would be no turning back.
I had just covered 101 steep miles, yet those would remain inconsequential because the final 21 miles of this race is what give it the brutal reputation. The big and final push would see me at my worst and my best. Sleeplessness caught up with me. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, no matter what. I sleep-hiked for two hours, maybe more. Amy would remain close behind me to ensure I remained upright and didn’t fall off somewhere. She would help me physically turn on the switchbacks. I was unable to comprehend her commands. “Left turn” sounded garbled. As the sun rose the second time on the course, we had crested the big climb. I was tired of feeling sleepy and helpless. As the trails became more visible I could see them crawling down the mountains. I decided I was going shock my brain into waking up. Amy cautioned me against it. I started bombing down the mountain till I hit Camp Mowich (mile 109). It was a risky strategy that worked. Still a lot of work remained ahead of me. After taking a little bit more coffee, it was time to push again. Yet another half-marathon effort on the rolling mountains; hard on up, free-fall on the down. The goal was to hit Sky Junction (mile 114) with enough cushion so I could finish the race without timing out. We got to the aid station, had a quick chat with the volunteers, drank some broth and took off. Four more peaks remained ahead of us before the final 6 mile descent to Lightening Lake. Amy stayed right behind me, ensuring I wasn’t over exerting, and drinking water and eating. I couldn’t wait for this to be over. She would continue to counsel me to have patience…“are you sure you can sustain this pace for three more miles?” She was right. The descent was a dream that squeezed any remaining life out of my legs. All three of us ran in together. Amy had brought me home.
In finishing my first 100-miler, I learned that I still had “it.” The “it” I was familiar with in school’s track-and-field. The “it” that would allow me to sustain a 35 hour, 83 mile chase for the finish.
I had fought tooth and nail for every step I took. I ran without any calories for 24+ hours, all together. I was emotionally exhausted and physically depleted, yet overflowing with a sense of life. A rebirth. It was everything I wanted to experience in an ultra. When Heather (the race director) extended her hand towards me with my buckle in her hand, I broke down into happy tears.
I ended the race feeling bonded and indebted to my friends in a way I feel I can’t pay back even if I tried, over and over. I will try. Over and over again!
Specific notes on:
Jimmy and Amy were on-point for the entire weekend. Attention to detail, the maddening efficiency of an Indy pit crew, instincts tuned in to my needs so well they could anticipate my needs before I felt them. I was greeted at every crew accessible aid station like a maharaja and given strict orders: sit, eat, we will take care of the rest. My feet were cleansed, my shoes and socks were changed, my gear was cleaned and dried, I was reminded of my allergy medications. I was presented a buffet spread of all the essentials I may need. I was embarrassed by all this personal attention. Yet I was enjoying a little…it would mean I could focus on my race and not fidget around the aid station. They drove for hours in every direction possible, hiked when necessary, and always, always presented themselves very positively, regardless of how tired they were. They kept everyone back home updated on my progress to the best of their abilities. They were my dream team.
Before the race we had an informal Q&A amongst ourselves. When would it be okay for them to call my race off? Never was the answer. I didn’t want them to be in that bind. I knew they would make the right call in the best interests of my health. Yet, I felt that only someone completely objective, and perhaps more trained, should make that decision. I told them that they must not worry about anything topical. However if I became incoherent or showed signs of internal issues, they were to get the race officials involved and let them take over. I had not given myself the permission to quit either. I inked “BURN YOUR BOATS” on my right forearm. Empires had been taken down by much smaller armies on this strategy, just because they had no way to retreat. I would look at that and remind myself that I must keep fighting to my last step whether it was to the aid station or the finish line. Even if I had only seconds to spare at the aid station, and a high chance that I wouldn’t make it to the next one in time, I was to proceed forward. I would gladly run, hike, crawl for hours on a slim hope that I could make it. Only two unknown persons were given the authority to call my race. One could pull me if I missed a cut off, the other for any medical reasons. I had envisioned a scenario where a bad fall would render one of my arms useless. I had prepped my gear in a way so I could operate it all with just one hand. And if I couldn’t move? I would sit right in the middle of the trail and wait till other racers or the sweepers showed up.
Before I would get to Bonnevier I unexpectedly developed a situation where I had to pee every 5-10 minutes. I wondered if I had picked up a UTI somewhere. This was a bit concerning, but as long as the urine was flowing and the color was not too dark, I didn’t worry too much about it. It got better when my appetite shutdown. I suspect, unscientifically, that overconsumption of sugar-based foods caused this. Maybe something else caused it. On Day 2 I developed blisters on both sides of the heel on both feet.
I fell on a slippery log, which had been laid in boggy conditions to aid the crossing, during the first long descent on Day 1. That fall caused an immediate cramp in my right calf. I “walked it off.” Shortly after leaving Ashnola, I developed a cramp in my left quad that lasted for about four hours. That too went away on its own. At Bonnevier I picked up poles. I experienced cramping in the left hand on and off till the race was over.
Consuming only sweet calories is a deal breaker. Stinger waffles worked well until they didn’t. Then I couldn’t stand the sight of them. Same for Fig Bars. Oatmeal pouches were a great option too. Applesauce cups worked well. Ginger masala chai worked its magic every time. Broth worked well every time. Ramen noodles worked great too. I had been a vegetarian for the past seven months yet I wasn’t restrictive of my diet on race day – occasional fresh bacon was very delicious and settled well. Surprisingly, I also ate a few bites of beefsticks and two small pepperoni sticks. I was really craving salty food. I drank mostly water, and also consumed some Coke. Small bites of pizza set well. Bannock dipped in broth was a lifesaver at Calcite…I was able to eat that when nothing else was appetizing. Baked/seasoned potatoes at Cayuse felt great. I never got to instant rice pudding/kheer, fresh fruit, and other things I tried during training. For a vegetarian this was an ironic situation. I guess you just never know what you are going to crave. The more options you have, the better your chances are of success. That is my lesson from this. I went back to my vegetarian lifestyle the moment I crossed the finish line. The veggie burger was delicious. Curiously, I craved raw onions. So I had some. That and the moonshine Amy had brought for me.
On my way to Cayuse I started noticing shapes in forest and trees – a gorilla resting on a log with its hand on a chin, bear-proof garbage containers, a manicured and hand-crafted log bridge, a shelter, two little children (or were they monkeys?) arm wrestling, a black panther (bagheera?) face by the tree trunk (looking at this mowgli?), a petite Asian woman sitting on a log with her hands on her eyes as if playing hide and seek (was that you Jenny?). I knew this wasn’t real yet couldn’t help but check it out, just in case, as I passed by that spot. It was all very amusing. I didn’t hallucinate after Cayuse.