by Nicole Lowe
I asked myself that question at least 1,000 times over the 100 miles (161 km) of the Salt Flats 100 endurance event held on April 25, 2014 in the northwest desert of Utah. My answer, I want it really freaking bad. This race was my second 100. I had to drop out of Pony Express at mile 72 (116 km) due to a high ankle sprain. Eighty-four people registered for the 100. Sixty- three showed up to run. Twenty-one finished. Three were women. There were fourteen aid stations on the course, and you could have a pacer after mile thirty-one, and a crew. On the Wednesday before the race, the race director (RD) sent an email out from the course. He said that there had been eighty mile per hour winds and visibility was about ten to fifteen feet.
Race day dawned with high clouds, 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and a decent head wind of about five mph. We started right at 7 a.m. on the Bonneville Salt Flats. For about 12 miles (19.3 km), we put one foot in front of the other on six feet of salt following little green flags. The land was barren, and made it impossible to judge how far away something was. We were headed to a solitary floating mountain.
Chris from Colorado, strode up next to me, “This wind sucks, huh?” I said.
He smiled and said, “You gotta look at the positive, it’s keeping the temperatures down.” Chis had finished nine 100 milers including Leadville, twice. Chris pulled ahead of me with a wish of good luck and I’ll see you at the finish.
Our first aid station was at mile 10 (16 km). I had a blister starting on the arch of my left foot, so I stopped and threw some tape over it, grabbed a few pieces of watermelon, thanked the volunteers, and continued on my way. The winds continued as we exchanged the salt for dirt and came into aid station two at 16 miles (25.75 km). From there we followed a dirt road along the base of sage dotted desert mountains. Aid station three, 23 miles (37 km), was found at the bottom of Cobb’s Peak Road. The road wound up the canyon where I found soft pink desert roses, Indian Paintbrush, and the first two trees of the race. I paused to look out over the vast stark white Salt Flats from high up in the canyon. The desert has a desperate beauty that stirs a place in my soul.
At Cobb’s Peak, was aid station four, mile 25.5 (41 km), and bacon quesadillas. We descended for three miles (5 km) and followed the dirt road over some rolling hills. As I neared the aid station, I was thinking about what I needed from my crew, Justin and Mike. I needed new shoes, new socks, something to eat, electrolytes, and my hydration pack refilled. I needed to get rid of my pullover because it was 70 degrees. I ran into aid station five at 31.6 miles (51 km). Justin encouraged me to keep my pullover, but I didn’t want the extra weight. I took my arm sleeves, gloves, and my shell, super light wind resistant jacket, which I could shove in a pocket of my hydration pack.
The road out of aid station five wound around the base of some more desert mountains and then climbed up through a canyon to aid station six at 40 miles (64.4 km). From there we descended a rocky washed out jeep road, requiring some fancy footwork. The mud flats were next. Deer and small animal footprints were pressed into the earth. The headwind started to pick up around one mile (1.6 km) in, a county sheriff on horseback was assisting runners who had gotten a little off the course route by about 200 feet, we were following green flags. The headwind increased to 50 mph and then the rain started. I pulled up my arm sleeves and tried to put my shell on. I could not get it zipped up because my hands were freezing cold, even with my gloves on. I wrapped it around myself, put my head down, and pushed forward.
“Are you serious?” I called into the wind.
I could not even hear my words. It was like being in a wind tunnel; the only sound was the rush of air. I wondered if Chris could put a positive spin on the wind this time. There were runners about a mile or so ahead of me. I couldn’t find the green flags. I was following the hoof prints of the sheriff’s horse. She had said she followed the flags out here. Every few minutes, I glanced up to sight the other runners and stay on route, as a swimmer does with buoys. Someone is going to get lost out here, I thought to myself. This is nuts.
That’s when the question hit me for the first time. How bad do you want that belt buckle? The wind slowed my pace to 17:00 minutes per mile. As the rain continued, the mud started clinging to my shoes, weighing them down, and my feet slid left and right with each step. A few miles later, we turned into the mountains again, which blocked much of the wind, but the rain continued. I was freezing cold and sopping wet.
Aid station seven, mile 50.5 (81.27 km), Mike and Justin walked out to meet me as I came in with my arms wrapped tightly around myself.
“Get me in the car,” I said. Justin went for coffee and broth. Mike turned up the heat and got me fresh clothing. I sat there for thirty minutes. A huge part of me wanted to quit. I ate a chicken burrito.
“You’ve finished the hardest part, it’s only going to get better from here,” Mike said.
“It’s six miles to the next aid station,” Justin said.
The rain continued to drizzle. I put my ear buds in and turned on my audiobook, and I went back out as the sun was going down. We followed the road over small rolling hills for seven miles (11.25 km) to aid station eight 57.4 miles (92.4 km). I got back into the jeep, soaking wet, but in better spirits than the last aid station. I changed clothes again. The rain started coming down even harder. Mike gave me his rainproof jacket, which hung to mid-thigh on me, keeping me very dry.
Back out in to the rain, I trucked along the road to aid station nine at mile 62 (99.8 km). I changed my soaking wet socks and put on a heavier base layer. Justin told me that they were not allowing crew’s at aid station ten, which means I wouldn’t see my crew for 12 miles (19.3 km).
“Make sure you are watching for those green flags so you don’t get lost,” Mike said. None of us were happy about this change. I was planning on them getting my drop bag from aid ten so I could use the clothing in it later, but wouldn’t need at ten.
“You’ll just have to bring what you can with you,” Justin said. I made a mental list of what I needed out of the drop bag. My good winter gloves, socks, and thermal pants.
“We’ll see you at mile 74,” Justin said.
I headed out for 12 miles (19.3 km) in the rain in the middle of the night. I climbed the road to aid station ten, mile 67 (107.8 km). My headlamp showed me that there were darker and lighter patches of the dirt road. I tried to stay on the lighter stuff because I knew that the darker stuff was super slick mud. Now, I love a slip and slide as much as the next person, but didn’t want to play tonight. I reached aid ten with minimal slipping and sliding. My feet were soaking wet, but I didn’t want to stop too long because I would get chilled. I drank down some broth, shoved things in my pocket from my drop bag, and moved on up the hill.
The jeep trail up the mountain was washed out and covered with rocks of various sizes. Other jeep trails crossed over the one I was on. Most intersections were marked, but there were a few where I had to make a choice. The safest bet is always to stay on the route you are on rather than turn. It was still raining the trail was muddy and speckled with puddles. A helicopter circled overhead, I could see the red and white and knew someone was lost or hurt. As I reached the dirt road that would lead me to aid 11, an ambulance passed. Not good.
At aid 11, mile 74 (119 km), I climbed back into the jeep to dry out. I changed my clothes again, and we put the rain jacket and my gloves on the heater vents to dry them out. I slept for about 15 minutes. I decided not to take my handheld water bottle because it made my hands cold and wet. I couldn’t pull them up inside of the jacket when I had the handheld. It was seven miles to the next aid station where my pacer, Jeff, was waiting for me.
About one mile (1.6 km) in, I was really thirsty and regretted leaving my handheld. I watched the sun come up, day two of running. Another mile in, there was a Diet Pepsi sitting on the side of the road. I passed it at first, telling myself it might be waiting for another runner. But then I went back. The wrapper was ripped up, so I figured it fell off someone’s car as they drove away. I considered for a second that I could get a cold or something worse, but I didn’t care. I turned the cap and heard the clicking of the seal breaking. It had never been opened. Best Diet Pepsi ever!
At aid station 12, mile 81 (130.4 km), I ate a cheese quesadilla and drank some broth. I took my socks and shoes off and dried out my feet. I re-taped them and put fresh socks on. My pacer, Jeff, and I headed out in the rain and a headwind with nineteen miles left and the last big climb. Jeff said that a female runner got lost yesterday on the mud flats between aid station six and seven. Search and rescue found her and her body temperature was at 91 degrees. She had hypothermia. She was flown to the nearest hospital.
The climb was about seven miles long and aid station 13 sat at the top, which was mile 90 (144.8 km). Jeff and I have been friends for about 10 years and have run together for the last four years. In fact, my entire crew is on my relay team. We talked and the climb passed by with minimal notice, other than the puddles and slip and slide mud. At aid station 13, we drank some hot chocolate while volunteers told us half of the runners had dropped out. We headed down the mountain. The wind at our backs was a welcomed change. About halfway down, we could see the finish line out on the Salt Flats. It seemed so far away. I knew part of that was the optical illusion created by the flatness.
Aid station 14, mile 95 (152.9 km), I got in the jeep for a few minutes. The wind was cold and blew off and on. I wanted to be done. The remainder of the race was on the paved road. It was the hardest road on the planet. That’s when the aches started to set into my legs. The finish line appeared to get farther and farther away as we approached. There were signs counting down the last five miles (8 km). Four miles to go. I was quiet and focused on finishing. Jeff tried to block most of the wind from me. Three miles to go. Jeff talked to me about movies he’d seen and the dynamics at work. Two miles to go. We waved and called good job to the fifty-mile (80.5 km) runners who were also on the road. One mile to go. There was four inches of standing water on the Salt Flats. It was getting warm outside again, and I had three layers of clothing on.
I could see the finish. The people still milling about, the RD, Justin, and Mike were standing there yelling and clapping as I ran across the finish line.
The RD set the cold metal buckle in my hand. “You earned this,” he said, with a smile on his face. “Worst race conditions we’ve ever had.”
“It was a battle out there,” I said.
“Can I sit down now?”