September 13, 2014

Wasatch Front 2014 - Giving Everything But Up

I stood at the starting line of the Wasatch 100 mile endurance run, and questions of doubt kept pinging my brain. Can I do this? Will I make it to the finish line? I knew Wasatch would take me longer to finish than any other race I had done before. I estimated 30 hours. I didn't have much choice in the matter. With over 26,000 feet of cumulative climbing in the mountains, this was going to be (by far) the most difficult race I had ever done.

It turns out that getting to sleep the night before the most difficult race I’ve ever done was, well, not the easiest thing. After tossing and turning for hours, I finally looked at the clock. I shook my head. I still hadn’t dozed off and my alarm was set to go off in 45 minutes. What the hell, I thought, why not just get up and start getting dressed now? It must have been at that moment - when I finally stopped trying to fall asleep - that I finally did. For all of thirty minutes. This would be the only sleep I would get for 51 hours.

Wasatch Front is in a league of its own. Heat, cold, elevation, vertical gain, technical trails, it has it all. In the first 10 miles runners must climb more than 4,000 vertical feet, from 4,900’ elevation to 9,150’. It is here where the infamous "Chinscraper" summit presents itself and forces runners to get down on all fours to scale its peak. But this is just the first 10 miles. To go the distance, runners must climb and descend more than 26,000 cumulative feet over this 100 mile course, much of which is in the high country of Utah between 8,000 and 10,500 feet.

I don’t know if it was due to the lack of sleep, the difficulty of the course, or the fact that this was my fourth hundred miler of the summer (maybe all of the above?), but my energy levels were unusually low during the first half of Wasatch. I kept wondering if I would be able to make it through 51 hours with no sleep. I began to think about taking a brief nap at some point, something I have never done during a 100 mile race. Instead, I just continued running, hiking, eating and drinking. I consumed my standard cuisine of Vespa with turkey and cheese sandwich pieces heavy on the mayonnaise, with a handful of Jolly Ranchers thrown in for some quick energy on the climbs.  

I’ve written that getting through the ups and downs is one of the greatest challenges of ultra running. There are times when I feel invincible. The miles, the hours and the mountains, they make me feel strong. Then there are times when I feel beaten down. These same miles, hours and mountains cut right through my strength. What I’m learning is there are times during 100 mile races when I have to have a conversation with myself. Not the rambling schizophrenic type, I’m talking a real dialogue between my mind and body. These conversations can make or break me out there.  

During the first half of Wasatch I watched lots of runners pass me. It was frustrating because I was losing ground. If you don’t know me by now, you should know I don’t like losing ground. I hate losing ground. But I had the conversation. I asked my body. Can I stay with them, by running a little faster, by expending a little more energy? I waited for the answer. I didn’t have to wait long. We can go when we are ready, my body told me. And right now we are not ready. Be patient, it told me. There are many more miles to run, and more mountains to climb. I could hear my ego in the background, trying to find its voice. But I knew it was the last voice I should listen to. I continued at my own pace.

Complicating things was my decision to run Wasatch (and all four Grand Slam events) with no crew and no pacers. For those unfamiliar with 100 mile events, a crew provides 100 mile runners with special food, drink, and motivational support on the long course. Pacers run alongside runners in the later stages of the race, usually at night for safety reasons, but also to keep runners focused and motivated to get to the finish line. Most 100 mile runners run with a crew and pacers.

Drop Bags...Essential with No Crew
I don’t care how fast or slow you are, when running 100 miles all hours through the day and night, the shadows of pain and doubt eventually take their toll on you. The strength that you start out with and need to rely on – your energy, your focus, and especially your motivation, all these things begin to fade. I’ve run with the assistance of a crew and pacers many times, and they can help you stay in front of these shadows. But on this day, on this quest to conquer Wasatch and the Grand Slam, I chose a different path. I needed to confront these shadows on my own.

When I looked up at mile 75 in the middle of the night, all I could see was the distinct outline of a mountain ridge, and the slow-moving, distant lights of runners making their way to the summit. The scene was illuminated by a brilliant moon, a waxing gibbons, high in the night’s sky. It was my final climb and it would take me to 10,500 feet, above the ski resort of Brighton, Utah.

There is something about moving through darkness, by yourself, under a cold night sky, that just feels alive. The bright moon, and bright stars, they simply pull you along, through fatigue, over doubt, into the unknown. Every step, every breath, difficult, but forward. As I began to hike to this final summit, I knew I was approaching the last segment of a very long journey. A 400 mile journey. The cold wind, the thin air, the steep climb, they all began to fade into the background. Into the forefront came something pretty special. Something I didn’t expect. Something I hope I can hang onto for a long time.

How does one describe the feeling of finishing one, let alone four 100 mile races? As I made my way down the mountain, I could feel the invisible pull of the Wasatch finish line. I could see it in the distance, and it seemed with every stride that moved me closer, I moved a little faster. Images of all my races began to flood my mind. Then, like that, after 400 miles, 93 hours and 30 minutes, I raised my arms and took my last step, across the final finish line, and out of an amazing chapter in my life.

Buckle, Number, Plaque and Certificate - it's official

To climb a mountain. To run 100 miles, four times in four months. To climb a total of 74,000 feet. To embrace 32 days of training and racing in solitude. Away from my family. To sit down while climbing a mountain knowing I have nothing more to give. To get back up knowing I can’t give up. To simply remember why I’m out here. To confront this beast. So others might see how families affected by a certain disease called Tuberous Sclerosis suffer, in obscurity, but who are willing to give everything but up.

That, I now know, is pleasure. Something I hope I can hang onto for a long time. 


Peter said...

Well done Will, well done...nice write up....what is the next chapter going to bring?

Will Cooper said...

Peter...I'm now just an open book, waiting for the next wave. thanks for your and Vespa's support during the Ultra Running Grand Slam.

Unknown said...

Awesome Will. You did what 99.999%of all runners in the world only dream of. We are all proud to know you!! God is Good. He was with you every step of your 400 mile journey!!

Will Cooper said...

Brad...thanks for the support and spiritual thoughts. See you at the next KPI session.

Jill said...

Oh man, oh man, oh man. I know we don't really "know" each other, but I'm sitting here just so stinking happy for you. Congratulations. Hope our paths run across one another one day (like I was at Leadville pacing this you - would have been cool to have met you :)) - it would be a true honor to meet the Grand Slammer!! Congratulations again!! Oh, and how about you coach me so I can stop being such a slug!! :)

Jukka Kukkonen said...

Great report! Congrats on finishing Wasatch! What's more, with 93:30:58 you were 4th of 14 GS100 finishers. That seems incredibly fast, especially without a crew or pacers.

Will Cooper said...

Jill, Would love to give you some tips on training and racing, from one "masters" runner to another. keep the faith out there and I look forward to meeting you on trail one day!

TP, amazing job at UTMB! To run so hard that you see Storm Troopers, that is saying something! Great race and I can only say I'm jealous that I never got to see the whole course!

Michael Friedl said...

Hey Will, I've been following your quest with such great interest. You are truly inspiring!

Congrats on SMASHING the 50+ Grand Slam record. I have compiled the GS results into a spreadsheet and loaded it here. It's right here:

Looking forward to hearing stories of your epic summer after Saltwater!


wcooperjr said...

Michael...thanks for your support and recognizing the goal that I've been fixated on all summer. It was a HUGE hurdle but I realized it was within my grasp after WS and Vermont. 2:47 was the final difference. Can you believe it? My marathon PR. Look forward to sharing some stories...congrats on Boston 2015!

Michael said...

Congrats on accomplishing your goal! While most of us are content to with our 5 mile runs, you just keep going like the energizer bunny! Congrats to Jen and the girls for supporting your dream, even from afar. I know you probably wouldn't have been able to do it without their love and support!

Michael G

Cory Reese said...

Huge congrats! That is an amazing accomplishment, especially on that course.

susette said...

Wowsa!! This course is right in my own back yard, yet I don't have the bravery to attempt this or any 100 miler in the mountains. Maybe one day.....sigh. (my first and only 100 so far was a very very flat course)

You are inspiring!