I am in the hospital. This isn’t the type of place that I frequent, at least not as a patient. The heart rate monitor attached to my finger makes typing difficult but I suppose that is the least of my worries. Or perhaps it is my biggest worry at the moment? I feel great. It appears my travel insurance will cover these couple nights here too. The nurses, doctors and staff at the Logan Regional Hospital have been fantastic. I fully expected to wait in the emergency room for 3-4 hours (standard Canadian practice) before being admitted but I was in the door in minutes and had a doctor almost immediately. Since then the stay has been top notch. Though as we dialed up our insurance company before heading to the hospital and again on admittance (they were actually great too) I wondered whether I would take the 3 hour wait over the anxiety of whether I’d have to pay for this much needed visit out of pocket.
How did I get here in the first place? It started at the end of the Canadian Death Race in 2015. That was my second ultra marathon and it was awesome. My running buddy, Jeremy and I, immediately made plans for our next ultra together and we chose the 100k Beaverhead Endurance Race for the summer of 2017. Then life happened. Jeremy went home to Finland and kept running. The Beaverhead would become his 12th ultra marathon and for me number 3. I’ve got a million excuses. Some of them are even good. None of them matter when you are fighting to catch your breath at the peak of a jagged mountain staring at the next summit in your way. The Beaverhead is reportedly the most rugged ultra marathon in Northwest America. I’m no expert but I’d be surprised to find a tougher race. There were 89 entrants for the 100k option 44 didn’t complete it.
Jeremy and I camped out at the start line the night before the race. The alternative was to take a ~3am shuttle from Salmon, Idaho to the start line at Bannock Pass. Camping out gave us an extra hour of sleep. Not that the sleep was great. We pitched a borrowed 2-man tent that wasn’t quite long enough for either of us to fully stretch out. If it had rained we would’ve been soaked. I was grateful for it nonetheless, it kept the mosquitoes at bay. Bannock Pass is at about 7,400 feet in elevation and looks out on a green rolling landscape worthy of the artists paintbrush. It took the breath away. Literally. I’m used to 2,200 feet above sea level. 7,000 is a stretch. The course offers about 12,000 feet of elevation gain over the 100k distance rising and falling between ~7,400 and ~10,000 feet above sea level. I have zero experience running at elevation.
The bus with our competitors rolled in about 4:20am and we scrambled to get prepared for our 5am departure. The race crew kindly transported our camping gear back to the the finish line for us. The forty minutes before the race went by way too quickly. No time to even visit the loo. We lined up in the semi-dark, our headlamps and a full moon illuminating the way before us and counted off the seconds that slipped away on a big digital clock brought out for the occasion. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and off we went into the dark, reflective stakes pounded into the ground pointing out the way. What a feeling! Setting off on an immense challenge, feeling the muscles and tissues in your body reverberating with excitement and knowing the joy of being young and healthy. There is always a bit of anxiety of course and for me, on this day, not having put in the training I wanted and should have, there were variables that made me a little nervous. I was elated all the same to be running with my old friend Jeremy. It’s been nearly 2 years!
We soon moved into single track running and within a few kilometers the pack was spread out. The trail winds through an undeniably gorgeous backdrop and those first few kilometers were great for lulling you into a sense of ease. There were a good number of aid stations on this run. I can’t remember them all but they seemed to be spaced fairly evenly throughout the course. Arriving at the first station I was pleased to see PB&J sandwiches and Pepsi – these places were excellently stocked. The folks manning them were awesome too. There were no fancy GPS tracking gadgets so we found ourselves calling out our bib numbers as we came in and out, hoping the folks with the clipboards would get them down.
Jeremy set a manageable pace. We strove to keep the heart rate down by power walking the hills and running the downhills. My immediate goal was simply to keep up with Jeremy as long as I could. After that I planned to shift into a power walk with occasional light jog for the remainder of the race. As kilometre 18 drifted by it occurred to me that every K after this would be the longest distance I’d run in quite a while (a year perhaps). At about 20 kilometres my right toe caught the edge of a rock or a root and the shock instantly threw my right calf into a terrible spasm and cramp. I had to flex hard to keep the muscle from seizing completely. Not cool. It was very clear to me at this point, having hardly done a half marathon, that my fitness level was not where it should be. Jeremy gave me a salt tab and within a couple minutes the cramp began to release. Okay – clearly I was losing sodium more quickly than I’d anticipated. The day was growing hot fast.
Jeremy left me at about the 28 kilometre mark. He just slowly started pulling away. He kept looking back but I waved him on. I thought that’d be the last I saw of him but he was cheering me on as I pulled into the next aid station. He set out walking as I grabbed a few calories. He had to return when he realized he’d forgotten his poles. So off we set once more together. We stuck together for another 10k or so. I seemed to burst through something of a wall and we made some great time on a few long downhill portions of the course. Our drop bags were waiting for us at the 45k mark. Jeremy pulled away about 5k before then. My renewed energy and strength was waning and to tell the truth this is where the trouble really began. The heat of the day was pressing now and I made an error I’ve made many times before. I chose to wear a black long sleeve shirt and black hat when I set out in the morning expecting I’d reach my drop bag with lighter clothing before the heat could catch me. I was close.
With a few kilometres to my drop bag I ran out of water. I was doing everything I could to keep my body cool. At each aid station I would load my hat with ice and leave it to melt on my head. My sleeves drawn back and my collar as wide as it could go yet the sweat was flowing. I moderated my pace to keep my heart rate down but it hardly seemed to help. Worse even was the hot spots forming on my feet. I hate blisters and generally speaking I rarely get them. I’ve never lost a toenail like so many other ultra runners and I very rarely develop blisters of any significance. This one forming on the outsides of both big toes and the back of my left heel was giving me some trepidation. Where was that aid-station and drop bag? I was running on a fairly smooth jeep track winding its way through rolling hills and Idaho scrub when I seemed to spot the stop a ways out and up! My heart sank – “It must still be 2k away,” I thought. I pressed on worried about my growing dehydration and foot soreness knowing that at these temperatures without water a few hundred meters in either direction could spell relief or disaster.
Some race official was walking the course in the opposite direction. I wanted to quip he was headed the wrong way as I passed but I was hurting. “The aid-station is just ahead” he called. I thought him a bit of a Jerk – I’d clearly seen the vehicles at least another kilometre away now obscured by the hill I was climbing. To be fair a kilometre really is “just ahead” but it might as well have been a thousand in my mind. But then cresting the hill there it was hidden in a little bowl in the land like cool crystal waters in a land of fire. I made it and not a moment too soon. I queued up to the table and a volunteer was taking my empty water bottles and another asking after my drop bag. Jeremy was there looking like a master of his element, confident and cool, coiled to strike out on the course. He asked if he should wait for me but I waved him on. I knew I’d be at this station for a while. He pressed into my hand a small black bottle labeled “Hot Shot” and then sped off, words of encouragement lingering behind him.
I found a chair in the shade and downed a litre of water. I was suddenly ravishing. Normally it is a struggle for me to eat after 40k of running but here I found myself struggling to hold back. I ate and I ate and I ate. A volunteer suddenly appeared above me, in his hands he clutched an armful of sweating pop cans, their cool interiors reacting with the oppressive heat around them. We exchanged some words I’m sure but all I recall is the brilliant blue Pepsi can and his smile as it slipped from his hand to mine. A shaded chair, my shoes removed from my feet and the sensation of cool fizzing liquid sugar passing my parched lips combined for the perfect sense of euphoria. This is all I needed. I could stop the race right now. No, I finished repairing my feet and changed into my lighter shirt and hat. My body temperature fell, it seemed, a couple degrees. I was ready to press on.
I peeled open the small black bottle Jeremy had given me. I wasn’t sure what I’d find… a powder, pills, no, an ominous dark liquid. I reexamined the bottled and confirmed I was supposed to drink it. It felt a little Alice in Wonderland as I tipped it back. It burned going down. I chased it down with some water and hoped for the best. I moved off down the trail thanking the volunteers at the aid station and falling in with another runner. Turns out Jeb, this runner, had completed the 55k last year but not without some trouble. He explained that last year he fell in the infamous “boulder field” and opened a cut below his knee requiring 8 stitches. In true ultra form he finished the race regardless, just a little bloody. Much more lay ahead I realized than what came before. I was climbing and my mind and body found a compatible mutual gear. More a walk than a run but my poles worked to push me forward with every step in a stubborn rhythm. I wouldn’t do much more running in this race but I had it in my teeth and I wasn’t letting go.
The next miles are something of a blur. I was racing the clock and much of my time was comprised of math. How fast was I moving? If I moved at 9 minutes per kilometre what time would I make the next aid station and how close to the cut off would that put me (10 minutes, 11 minutes, 12 minutes)? This terrain minus the increase in blister size on my right foot plus the possibility of elevation gain minus possible downhill sections divided by my time at the last aid station would put me into the next cut off with so much to spare. But if this rain storm approaching is at all severe how long might it take to put on the rain gear and what will the rain do to the trail? I hate math by the way. I made it into the 3:30pm cutoff station with hours to spare. I inquired after Jeremy and learned he was about 30 minutes ahead of me. I’d inquire after him at every aid station and watch him pull ever so slowly away from me.
A storm was gathering along the mountain I was ascending, The thought of rain was a good one. I could hear the growing repeat of thunder though. I was running along a high ridge of the Continental Divide when the rain began and I had to put on my shell. I stopped next to the charred remains of a past lightning strike to pull it on. The booming of thunder as I ran through a forest of historical lightning strikes was unnerving. My metal trekking poles lightning rods in my hands. I morosely wondered what it might feel like to be struck by lightning. Would there be any warning? I suddenly could run again.
As the race progressed the race directors seemed more and more masochistic. I seemed to be climbing all the time. I was playing leap frog with what I knew was the final half dozen to dozen runners on the course. Some of us were not going to make the next cut-off. Would it be me? I was starting to hope it would be me. The last cutoff was 7:30pm. I was watching the clock. I told myself I would run for it at 7:15 if I was still not there. It was with mixed relief that the aid station appeared on the hill above me at 7:15. I’d make it. I wouldn’t need to run for it. I’d make it. Was that a good thing?
I collapsed into a chair at the aid station next to a jovial volunteer flipping quesadillas on the barbecue. “You need a quesadilla my friend!” And magically a corn tortilla was in my hand. I’d beat the cutoff by 12 minutes and I thought I might just die right there. 5 minutes washed away as I fumbled with my phone to text Lisa. The urge to let her know I was still alive seemed urgent to me and I was glad to find a weak cell signal. “Um, not trying to rush you but you should know that the cut-off at 7:30 means you need to leave the aid station by that time.” Wait, What? This was news to me and not good news. I looked down at my legs. There were dozens of small flies feasting on them. I looked at my watch. 7:27. I stood and borrowed a can of bug spray to douse my shaking legs. I shoved half the quesadilla down my throat and suppressed a violent gag reflex. The remainder went in a trash bin. “Thanks everyone! #47 heading out!” It was 7:28pm. As I pulled away I heard the volunteers tell the gentlemen right behind me the next cut off was the last aid station 4.5 miles away at 11pm. 3.5 hours to cover 4.5 miles shouldn’t be a problem I thought even if there is some “boulder field” in the way.
There was no trail really. All that lay before me was a field of jagged boulders the bones of some ancient mountain reaching up to stab and slice at those that would dare to disturb their rest. The sun was falling in front of me and I worried that I’d be trapped on these mountains in the dark. To my right the land fell immediately away, a cliff towering above moraine lakes and scree fields below. Beautiful valleys to my left teased with the knowledge that somewhere among them we would descend to the finish line. We final three on the course spoke little. Though we took queues from one another. When one rested the others seemed to receive permission to rest too. When one moved the others seemed drawn to move too. Each peak seemed to be followed by yet another in an endless procession into hell. Planting my poles between a few rocks I bent and pulled for air watching my sweat splash against the parched rocks at my feet. “I don’t care” I said. “I can miss the next cutoff, they can pull me from the course – I don’t care.” #11, smiled. “Yes you do, you care” she said. “Ok, yes I care but I don’t care” I rejoined and raised my head and my poles. It was time this was over.
We came off the boulder field suddenly and in a steep dive. The trail snaked sharply down the mountainside requiring you to use the surrounding trees to arrest your descent. It was nearly steep enough to slide down on your backside. If my quads had anything left it was about to be spent on this. The sun failed and I stopped to retrieve my headlamp. The trail was marked by a series of reflective stakes like glow bugs in some enchanted forest. I pulled into that final aid station about 20 minutes after 10pm having spent nearly the past 3 hours covering 4.5 miles. It was by far the most difficult 4.5 miles of my life. I felt like throwing up. A volunteer handed me a small cup full of fruit smoothie as I settled into a chair. #11 was there reminding me to be pleased with my achievement. I liked her attitude.
This was it. Just 9 more kilometers to go on a trail from all accounts that was relatively tame. I could cover that distance in my current condition in about 100 minutes I calculated. It was about 10:30pm when I stood up. I was going to finish this thing. I found a pace and pushed it a little harder. Down to the finish line. The river crossings at the end were a nice touch. The cool water on my feet was amazing. Soon enough I could see the lights of the finish line in the distance. Every time the trail veered away from the finish I felt the sting of annoyance. I concentrated on the time. No sense expecting the finish line before midnight. Then it was midnight and I was still on the trail. 10 more minutes. 10 more minutes. “Go James.” It was Jeremy’s voice. Jeremy was there on the side of the trail in a chair, the finish line out of sight. Was I hallucinating? “Go buddy, you’ve got 200 meters left.” 200 meters! My poles were in my hands and I was running, running down hill, running to the finish line. Running to my family, to freedom to relief and ecstasy and… I was running. Breathe. I fought tears, joyful tears. There was the clock (19 hours and 11 minutes) and the finish and tears desperately wanting to spill down my cheeks and pour out the last of my energy onto the ground. My girls were there and running with me. I crossed the line and felt my knees go. I was on my back staring up at smiling faces and thanking God for my life, for this body capable of so much. I knew that were I to finish it would be a triumph of mind over matter. It was an epic battle and my mind won. Though I would learn that my body wasn’t going to go quietly.
I won’t try to describe the feeling of finishing such a race. Those moments right after when you chat with competitors (there were only a handful of us left) is surreal. It was after midnight. I hoped to crawl straight into a tent and fall asleep. Lisa informed me we were instead going to drive three hours south to our friends the Anderson’s. She figured the ride would be worth the real bed. I couldn’t argue that. We had already imposed on the Anderson’s for nearly a week and I was reticent to inflict myself on them anymore but who was I to argue. Matt and Yvonne if you read this you need to know you are the embodiment of sainthood. Thank you.
It was a fitful ride back but I was hardly conscious even when I was technically conscious. At some point in the wee hours of the morning I took a shower and scrubbed myself as clean as I could. Then I threw up. That Hot Shot at kilometre 45 seemed to return with vengeance. At least the black vomit that swirled below my parched lips looked, smelled and tasted like the little vial I’d downed earlier. I felt marginally better. We rested at the Anderson’s where I fought recurring episodes of vomiting until about 4:30pm. Then we piled into the van with its poor attempt at an air conditioner to make the 3-hour drive to Logan, Utah where we planned to stay with friends before dropping the kids at summer camp at the University of Utah on Monday afternoon. “If I throw up one more time I think I’d better go to the hospital.” I told Lisa. Then the hiccup fit began. My feet on the dash and a bucket in my lap my chest spasming every few moments threatening to expel what little fluid I had left in my body. I took some anti-nausea meds (Gravol) just before getting in the car but they didn’t seem to be doing much.
I held on as long as I could before puking in the car. Lisa cracked the windows and we stopped at a gas station to rinse out the bucket. It was time for a hospital. We arrived at our friends’ home and announced my predicament. We could not have better friends. Marvin loaded me into his car after we called the insurance company and took me into Logan Regional Hospital. I figured they’d give me some anti-nausea medicine and some IV fluids. I’d be out in a few hours. Dr. Stolworthy had other ideas. He seemed rather concerned when he told me he needed to admit me for 3-4 days and that I’d developed something called Rabdomyolysis. Essentially my muscles had begun to break down and the resulting proteins were too large for the kidneys to handle. Eventually the condition would lead to renal failure, possible nerve damage and other nasty things. Lisa got on the phone with the insurance company and we proceeded as the doctors directed. There were all sorts of folks popping their head in and out of the room before I was officially wheeled off to the ICU. One young doctor appeared next to the bed and announced that Dr. Stolworthy had told her to come by and look at me. That my case was “interesting.” Everyone that saw me over the next couple days mentioned how impressive it was that I’d run 100 kilometres. Naturally, I thought it’d be much more impressive were I not lying in a hospital.
Honestly, I don’t feel any less about that 100 kilometre accomplishment even though it ended in a stay at the hospital. The hospital was about the best thing that could have happened. Sure they came around every few hours to stick needles in me but I slept. That first night I was racked with the worst hiccups I’ve ever experienced but they pumped me full of enough anti-nausea medicine that I did not throw up again. They hung bag after bag of IV fluids and kept a close eye on my sodium, potassium, “CK-protein” and other levels. Sure I had to get up every hour to pee but for the first day someone was there to unplug me and help me wheel the IV stand to the restroom. I was admitted Sunday evening. By Monday evening I was unhooking myself and getting in and out of bed unassisted. By Tuesday I was writing this post and feeling amazing. At least comparatively.
The doctors seemed to think my situation was concerning. They put me through a few tests including an EKG. My heart rate was concerning for me, resting in the 70s when it ought to be in the high 40s. There was some concern about a high “T wave” but in the end everything checked out. In fact, I checked out of the hospital Tuesday evening and Lisa and I headed into Salt Lake City to dinner with an old mission companion. I felt like I’d just been raised from the dead. I’m sure my family will never let me live this down. Most of them have promised to kick my butt when they next see me. I’m not too concerned.
So what have I learned? I’m not sure I know yet. There is the obvious: clearly I need to spend more time and effort on my preparation for these things, my mind is capable of killing me and I’m happy to be alive. Jeremy finished his race in just over 16 hours. I was about 2 hours behind him. The apprentice has truly become the master. What I’ve really been reminded of through this whole thing… how much I love my wife. She cried for just a moment in the hospital and it struck me how meaningless it’d all be without her.