Why run the Bear 100, a race 1,958 miles away from my home here in Blacksburg, VA? Well, there is the obvious fact that it is a Hardrock 100 qualifier. There is also the allure of running some new and challenging trails. The plan was to make this my ‘A’ race for the year and gear all my training and racing towards the Bear. This year continued my recent trend of ‘racing less’ and ‘training bigger’ meaning I only raced a handful of times since my last 100 miler (2015 San Diego 100) and spent most of my time doing big runs in the beautiful mountain of southwest Virginia. With several training runs of over 45 miles and some with durations upwards of 15 hours, I was feeling about as prepared as I could be. We have an incredible community of trail runners here in Blacksburg and I owe so much to these amazing guys and gals. Without them, running in the mountains would not be nearly as fun, exciting or meaningful. I love you guys.
|Sunny and mild the day before the Bear 100|
Lesson #1: Preparation is key, but for me, that means quality time with my friends and family while doing it
At the end of August, about 1 month from race day, a fire popped up along the race course. The Peterson Hollow complex kept growing and we kept watching closely as race day approached. Would the fire get put out? Would they alter the race? Cancel the race? Having gone through the sting of the cancelled 2013 Grindstone 100 (government shut down) I was preparing myself for the worst. Once the fire was 100% contained at 1,242 acres and trail closures were effectively in place, the race directors came up with a miraculous reroute that utilized different trails.
Lesson #2: Reroutes happen in life
As race day approached, my buddy Josh and I flew out from Roanoke and met up with Collin and Daria Anderson at their home in Salt Lake City. The weather had been making a turn for the worst over the last couple days prior to the race and now it looked like 100% chance of a fair amount of rain and snow. While east coast mountain living has afforded me a certain amount of experience running in the rain and snow, never had I imagined experiencing this at elevations upwards of 9,000ft. The morning prior to the race, the race directors again changed the course to prevent runners and crews from heading into dangerous conditions in the high mountains of Utah/Idaho in the middle of the night. Again, I felt a twinge of disappointment that I was not going to get the chance to run the ‘real Bear 100’ but quickly turned my attention to preparing foe the reroute of the reroute…aka The Bear 3.0
Lesson #3: reroutes of reroutes happen…. Be ready for anything
I need to mention that throughout all of these changes, my crew chief Josh, was dutifully changing all his pre-planned driving, pacing and crewing directions that he had meticulously prepared prior to leaving VA. I could not have asked for a more detail oriented, focused and loyal friend to join me on this adventure and while I knew it was stressful for him to change his plans at the last minute, I also knew he was going to make sure that he and the rest of my crew were always there and ready for me no matter what conditions faced them. I had 100% confidence that my all star crew of Rudy, Josh, Daria and Collin would be wherever I needed them and would do anything in their power to get my soggy and cold self to the finish line.
|Crew chief Josh's organizational skills at work|
Lesson #4: Surround yourself with good people. They will carry you through no matter what
After a fun night staying with a friend of a friend in Logan, we found ourselves at the start line and ready to go. The weather was a little warmer than anticipated and I was excited to hit the trail with a couple hundred companions. The gun went off and we streamed out of Logan into the darkness. It was comforting to immediately fall in line with an old friend of mine from VA, Greg Brant who would go on to crush the race and finish 6th! We caught up on life and contemplated what the rest of the day would have in store for us. Though the first 12 miles were relatively flat and muddy, as day-light broke we looked up into the mountains and could see the heavy, dark clouds and could feel the damp, cool air rushing down the mountains carrying the precipitation that would follow us throughout the rest of this adventure. I smiled a little bit because we all have just a little bit of masochism running through our veins when we make that decision to run a 100 mile trail race…and a little added dose of weather doesn’t hurt.
|With Rudy before the start|
Lesson #5: When it’s Go Time, don’t let the little things get in your way.
After hitting the first aid station at around mile 12, we started up the climb through Millville Canyon, which on paper, didn’t look too intimidating. Needless to say, this climb it was a big, fat, technical smack in the face! I was climbing hands on knees and was feeling like I was going nowhere. Looking up was pretty depressing, knowing that we had a couple miles of this before topping out at the top of this climb. About 2/3 of the way up, it started gently snowing on us. I had been climbing with Kaci Lickteig, who is a fellow PT and she suddenly broke the silence by gleefully yelling out, “ITS SNOWING!!!!!” This sudden outburst jolted me out of my climbing pity party and made me look up and around, getting a sense of how truly incredible our surroundings were. We were climbing through vibrant fall colors with snow falling down on us. Just perfect.
Lesson #6: When you are feeling bad, stop thinking about yourself and just look around at the beauty of nature.
We hit the top of Millville Canyon at around mile 15 and I immediately felt coldness surge through my body. We had just climbed from about 4,700ft to about 7,400ft and the temperature had dropped dramatically. I struggled to put on gloves and a hat as the trail became more runnable. Rolling into the first crewed aid station at Leatham Hollow (mile 22), I was just happy to see some smiling, familiar faces. Daria, Collin, Rudy and Josh whisked me through and I settled in with Dominick Layfield, someone I had raced with at the Georgia Death Race this past year. He encouraged me with his many stories from his previous gnarly finishes at the Bear and gave me some sage advice about pacing the rest of the race.
|Running into Leatham Hollow at mile 22|
The next section was my low point in the race. I found myself alone after mile 25 and started to struggle. My nutrition was starting to get out of whack because I had been drinking too much water over the first 25 miles (probably due to being nervous), which led me to start cramping, and having to pee every couple minutes. Not a good sign 1/3 of the way through a 100 mile race. Rather than freak out though, I ran through all the wonderful advice my super-sports-dietitian of a wife had given me over the years and I decided to systematically decrease my water intake and increase my electrolyte intake over the next 15 miles. The other thing I was struggling with was the relentless false flats of this section. This part of the course FELT FLAT….but in fact we were again climbing from about 5,000ft up towards 7,500 ft. Not knowing the course well enough, I was feeling frustrated that I could not run this part faster and felt like I was losing ground on everyone. I had a major reality check during this section. Despite all the hours of training and planning I had done going into The Bear, this race was going to be HARD. Things were not going to go my way the entire race and I would have to deal with plenty more adversity before I got back to Logan. Though struggling mentally, I kept moving steadily to Cowley Canyon (mile 30) and down to Right hand Fork (mile 37).
Lesson #7: Reality Check: training hard and preparing well will not remove the struggle and adversity from a race. Training and preparation helps you be successful at dealing with that adversity.
Rolling into Right hand fork (mile 37) and seeing my crew again was refreshing to say the least. Unlike the last time I saw them at Leatham Hollow, I knew first hand what conditions I would be running in for the next 60 miles, had a plan for what I needed in terms of gear, got my nutrition sorted out and knew how to articulate how I was feeling so they could help get me on my way. I picked up the one and only Rudy to pace me for the next 7 miles or so. I knew if anyone could turn my race around, it would be this guy. I think he could sense that I was not feeling my best as soon as we left the aid station but instead of trying to unnecessarily push me this early in the race, he worked his pacer magic and just kept me moving forward, talking with me about life, reminding me about how epic the scenery was and just keeping me smiling as only a good friend could. There were actually times during these rolling 7 miles that I forgot that I was racing, and I was transported back to the good old days where Rudy and I would cruise for hours through our beautiful Appalachian mountains without a care in the world. As the trail emerged from a narrow canyon, leading us into open grasslands with sweeping views of the mountains around us, the rain seemed lighter, the air warmer and we even caught a brief glimpse of blue sky which was cause enough for a quick celebration.
Lesson #8: Smile and remember that all this suffering we go through isn’t about achievements and glory but rather the amazing things we get to do and see with people in our lives!
It Never Always Gets Worse
Rudy and I ran into Temple Fork (mil 45) with big smiles and with my spirits boosted, just in time to tackle the biggest climb of the day up to Tony Grove. I picked up Collin to pace me from here and after negotiating the traffic on highway 89, we started up the steep, muddy ascent for Tony Grove.
|Did anyone mention the mud?|
I met Collin Anderson in 2006 at a small marathon in Maryland and we have been friends from afar ever since. He and his wife Daria, unexpectedly offered to crew and pace me when I told them I was heading out to do the Bear! Collin has years of experience with crewing and pacing all sorts of different races from Badwater to Wasatch so I knew I would be well taken care of during this stretch. As we climbed the 2,700 ft up to Tony Grove, I quietly listened to many of Collin’s stories from crewing over the years. I have so much respect for people who spend their time, money and energy to help others achieve their crazy goals. Following his super bright running outfit, which he had me pick out the night before, we clawed our way through mud up the mountain. The rain and wind started to pick up during the stretch but we were pretty sheltered in the forest of aspens and firs. The rain soon turned to snow and we knew we were getting close to the top. We caught a few guys during this climb but were also passed by a handful. This was the first time I really thought about my place because I knew the leaders would be coming back towards us anytime now. Sure enough, through the heavy snow we started seeing people running back towards us! In third place was Kaci, being paced by Zach Miller, a fellow Lancaster native!
|The view heading up to Tony Grove|
|Heading into Tony Grove with Collin|
We made it to the Tony Grove aid station soon after and roughly in 16th place. I changed shoes and socks… and by that I mean Josh peeled off my shoes while my frozen hands fumbled with my socks. We had some fun at this stop seeing how many tasks we could accomplish at one time, with Rudy feeding me, Josh taking my shoes off and Chrissy making us pose for pictures. My legs were feeling great here, my stomach was sound and I was ready to roll out and head back towards Logan. On our way back down the mountain, my feet started feeling a little tender, possibly from the 12 hours of being wet, and some words of Dr. David Horton popped into my head, “It never always gets worse!” This year marked my 11th year of running ultras and Dr. Horton has directed or been at nearly all the races I have ever done. He has played an integral role in my development as a runner and has always pushed me to be a faster, stronger athlete. When I told him months ago that I was doing the Bear, his eyes lit up and he said, “Chang, you will like that one! Oooooo that’s a good race!” Now, as my body started to feel the effects of the slippery, never ending descent, his words came back to me, reminding me that yes in fact, the pain never always gets worse.
Lesson #9: Remember the people who got you started on this journey.
At the urging of Rudy, Collin and I reluctantly crossed thigh deep through a creek to enter the Spawn Creek aid station (mile 60). I was able to put on some gloriously dry and warm clothes thanks to my crew’s stellar preparation and attention to detail to not only dry my jacket, gloves and base layers in the car between aid stations but to have them ready for when I arrived! I picked up Rudy again and we got our headlamps all set for night to fall. It was about 6:30pm and with the cloud cover and rain, it felt later. After getting through a few hills early in this section, I wanted to see how my running legs were feeling, so with Rudy’s encouragement, I started going longer and longer stretches without walking. Running! This was happening at the 100k mark! I was feeling pretty fresh and running felt GOOD. In all my other 100 milers, the 100k mark was the point of gradual decline in my performance. This time, I was feeling the best I had the entire race! With Green Day blasting in my ears (what can I say I love me some Green Day) Rudy and I started flying down the trail towards Right hand Fork. At one point we caught up to Guy Love, fellow Hokie and founding member of the first and BEST collegiate ultra-running program in the country! Running, running, feeling free! I heard Rudy say something along the lines of “stay in control dude…” and I reluctantly tempered my pace, knowing that he was right. At another point, as darkness was settling in, I turned to him and made it clear that we were going to get to Right Hand Fork (mile 66) without turning our headlamps on. This was fun! I was having FUN in the rain, mud and with 60+ miles under my belt.
|Having fun while trying to keep warm at Spawn Creek|
Lesson #10: Have fun. That’s why we do these things!
Leaving Right Hand Fork, Rudy and I kept a solid hiking pace. Guy and Meri passed us about a mile later and we followed the glow of their headlamps up, up and up towards Cowley Canyon. I hike this entire 2000ft climb but felt so smooth and steady doing it. I had a new found confidence that I had never felt this far long during a 100. I KNEW mentally that I was making the right choice by hiking this and my body was agreeing with me. At the top, we started running again and this time spent a mile or two with Guy and Meri, catching up on life and passing the time in the dark before separating right before the aid station. After rolling into Cowley Canyon in 12th and spending less than 3 minutes there, we headed back into the darkness. While this is usually a point in a race where you have to dig really deep to keep moving forward, there was a refreshing lightness to my step. I was with a good friend, rolling steadily through the darkness and getting closer to the finish line with each step. I started peppering Rudy with all sorts of super deep questions about life, to which he did his very best to answer even though I knew he was just as tired, wet and cold as I was. Thanks for going deep with me dude. Boom. Face plant. Rudy is there, picking me up as I’m having a coughing fit from slamming my chest on a rock. Systems check: all good, lets keep running. At Richards Hollow, we stopped briefly and realized just how hard its raining now. Lets just say cats and dogs.
Lesson #11: Real friends are willing to go deep right alongside you.
Bend Don’t Break
I knew that I was not the most nervous person at Leatham Hollow (Mile 85). My great friend Josh had been superbly crewing me all day but this was his first time pacing me, ever. As we left Rudy to try and dry off and we turned up the final climb, I couldn’t help but smile as Josh recounted all the new and exciting things he had experienced throughout the day. Up we went, and again, the rain gave way to snow. The trees bowed down over the trail, burdened under the weight of the wet snow. I started feeling like those trees, bending under the weight of this endeavor. Looking around though, none of the trees were broken. I was running a fine line, just wishing the finish to be right around the next corner. At the top of the climb, Josh and I took a moment to take in the frozen landscape before tackling the incredibly technical descend out of Millville Canyon.
We finally arrived at the last aid station, and I was cold. The last thing I needed was to get hypothermic with 5 miles to go so I downed 2 cups of broth and we sped out of there, determined to knock out this last several miles with the same urgency as the first 95. Slowing down was not an option. Breaking here would just mean more time spent in the rain, wind and snow….and that was NOT going to happen. Off we went through the rolling hills just above the town of Logan. Eventually we made a glorious left turn onto asphalt and Josh turned to me and said, ‘Here you go man! You made it!” Best. Words. Ever. We ran quietly up to the pavilion at Hyrum Gibbons Park and all of a sudden, I was done.
21:42:48 -- 10th place
Lesson #12: Bend, don’t break. Breaking won’t get you to the finish any faster.
One of the ironic and oddly satisfying aspects of finishing a 100 mile trail race is how the finish line is often quite subdued. No bands playing, no beer tent or screaming rows of people lining the chute. And that’s just how I like it.
It Takes A Village
To say I could have done this by myself would be a big, fat, blatant lie. From the planning stages, to the training and all the way to the race execution, I relied heavily on others to carry me.
Thanks to my beautiful wife for being the most supportive, patient human being ever. Being married to an ultrarunner is not easy. Period.
Thanks to my amazing friends and training partners who always push me to be a better runner, friend and husband. #catawbaridgerunners4life
Thanks to the INCREDIBLE volunteers and race staff at the Bear. You all thanklessly stood out in the rain and snow for hours upon hours to serve a bunch of tired, cranky and sleep deprived runners.
Thanks to my crew. What can I say? You guys made this race happen for me. I am eternally grateful.
This sport is all about people. At church this morning the pastor said something that echoed strongly in my mind. “ Everything we work so hard to build up will eventually be torn down like a sand castle at the beach. Only those with a hand to hold are able to walk away with a smile.”
So with that I’ll leave you with the wise words of Collin Raye: