Lost in the Dark: Stagecoach 100 Race Report
I’d spent the week camping in near Monarch Pass, in the Sawatch range of Colorado, where only six weeks earlier I’d tried and failed at High Lonesome 100, dropping out angry, frightened, and miserable in the middle of a dark night.
I’d seen photos of the areas I’d run through at night because Andrea had hiked the Colorado Trail the year before. I had no idea that outside of the cone of light from my headlamp were lakes, and passes, and stunning views. All I’d seen was a dimly lit rock strewn trail, sometimes obscured by scree and talus fields. I wanted to see those areas again, to have them in my memory if and when I pass through again at night, next August, and it seemed like this might be the last chance I’d have before the weather turned.
The views were all I’d hoped. It was stunning, but it was more. I was able to disconnect completely from the city, from work, from anxieties. In the fall colors and the aspen I found myself transported back to childhood on the edge of the Canadian prairie, and in the foothills of the rockies. It was a beautiful place to be, and I got to experience a realignment of values, if only temporary.
I’d signed up for Stagecoach 100 – officially known as “Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays” in the aftermath of my High Lonesome DNF, as redemption, just to get a 100 miler in. In the weeks after, I’d come up with more doubts even than usual about my ability to finish the race. The runability was a drawback, I said to myself (and anyone else around to listen), because recently I’d demonstrated no ability to run any distance at all. I was pretty sure I would fail. I wasn’t sure I had a 31 hour hundred miler left in me. When I unexpectedly came off the Cuyamaca 100K waitlist I took the opportunity to withdraw from Stagecoach. Instead of running, I would crew Andrea.
Now, driving down to Flagstaff through the Rockies, through these long high plains – cattle grazing on BLM land that seemed like prairie more than anything, but at 9,000+ feet high, mountains dusted with snow from the night before in the distance, on either side, driving down a two lane highway, rich smells of freshly cut straw, bright patches of yellow and red aspen leaves on the mountain sides, amid all the evergreens, and I just wasn’t worried about all the crap I normally worry about. All I really wanted to do was run the first 20 miles of the Stagecoach race, the miles that go around Humphrey’s Peak, through the trees, maybe as they turned color, plenty of aspen there. It wasn’t about running a race. It was just about running.
Humphreys Peak: miles 1 – 34
The race begins with a long and very gentle climb as it winds along the flanks of Humphreys Peak, the tallest (at 12,633 ft) of the San Francisco Peaks, a range of dormant volcanos in Northern Arizona. Our high point would be 8,666 feet, far short of the summit as we followed the Arizona Trail along the western slope of the mountain, smooth singletrack through tall, tall aspen, with stretches of prairie-like grassland. This was the section I’d come to run, and while the leaves hadn’t turned yet on this first day of autumn, it was still beautiful, and felt like fall.
At the top of the climb were a handful of folks with cowbells, cheering us on. The descent was steeper than the climb, and rocky. Some sections were a little hard to run. The 55K runners and the 100 mile relay teams started passing us up here. There were a lot of them, but they were moving much quicker than we were, and gone soon.
The first aid station, at 9.5 miles, was Hart Prairie, amongst log cabins in a wide open, grassy meadow. There was a mixture of single and double track here. I honestly don’t remember much. It was wide open and beautiful and I just took it in as I moved through it.
I came upon Andrea at some point in here. She was struggling to relace her shoes to relieve pressure on top of her feet. I was a little worried to see her, as I expected her to be well ahead of me. She might not have been happy to see me, too, for the same reason. I was ahead of schedule and told her so.
Andrea had made a decision not to have any change of shoes in any of her drop bags. I felt guilty. Having backed out of the race, I was supposed to be crewing her, and if I was crewing her and she was running into gear problems, her race would not be derailed; we could swap out at the next crew aid station, which was coming up soon. She was gunning for a sub 24 hour race, which would be her first, and it really meant a lot to her. She’d been nervously chattering about pace and race strategy all through the day before.
On the other hand, I did not really have a race strategy of any kind. I hadn’t had time to think of one in the day-and-a-half between the time I entered the race and was running it. This was Andrea’s big race; race strategy was her business. Instead, I had decided on an arbitrary 15 minute per mile pace, which I reckoned would get me to the finish somewhere in the 25 hour ranch if I could sustain it. It’s also a good number because it divides nicely; doing the math would never be hard.
Andrea caught up to and passed me. We continued winding through the forest. The next aid station was Kelly Tank, at mile 21. followed by Cedar Tank at mile 34. In between was a small aid station manned by Rob Krar and his wife. Rob Krar kind of burst onto the ultrarunning scene a few years ago with some spectacular performances many of which have subsequently surpassed by fellow Flagstaff runner Jim Walmsley, who seems to be Krar’s temperamental opposite. Walmsley does everything in a big way. His 100 mile successes are epic; his 100 mile blowups are equally spectacular and much more frequent, and there’s very little in between. There’s a sense of urgency to Walmsley that makes me nervous. It reminds me of the urgency I felt when racing in high school, except that I was not desperate to win. I was terrified of losing, and in winning there seemed some sort of essential, fundamental safety to a frightened, inwardly feral teenage me. All of this drama was kept tightly internal, unnoticed by the outside world, even though in my highschool moment I was a regional star. Jim, on the other hand, is excruciatingly public.
Rob Krar was handing out popsicles. Popsicles are excellent race food.
Babbitt Ranch, miles 34 – 55
Cedar Ranch, at the beginning of the Babbitt Ranch section, was also the finish of the 55K. It was a zoo. I was looking for a place to toss some trash and headed towards the trash can containing a keg Jim Walmsley was guarding the beer. “That’s beer!!” he cried out in alarm when I mistook the keg container for a trash can. “That stuff is sacred! It’s not trash!”
Babbitt Ranch is a huge private livestock ranch. The first 20-something miles of the course were mostly on singletrack in tall aspen and ponderosa pine, with sections of doubletrack and mostly smooth, soft, nicely graded forest service road. The Babbitt Ranch section of the AZT consists of twenty miles of dirt roads in various conditions – some good gravel roads with lots of washboard, that will accommodate cars easily enough, and some pretty primitive jeep road and double track.
Some roads were washboard and gravel. Some were rocky. Some were dusty. All were roads. It was all wide open space, as befits a ranch. The runners were widely spread out, and you could see for miles in the distance.
It was early afternoon at the start of the Babbitt Ranch section. There were enough clouds in the sky to keep things mercifully cool. When the sun did shine down on us unobscured it got toasty in a hurry, but those moments were short lived and few. This can be a windy section, but we were lucky there, too – a strong breeze that was enough to keep us cool, never so strong to slow us down.
I don’t remember much about the next three aid stations. One offered whiskey and a chance to shoot guns. One was just a bunch of five gallon jugs of water by the side of the road, help yourself. One was to the left just before a hill.
I kept moving steadily through. The wide open space encouraged wide open thought. A thought or thought pattern could persist for a long time, which made it perfect for a running meditation, which is basically a walking meditation but faster, and less deliberate. The road/trail rolled gently, and I’d locked into a concentration meditation that involved counting the breaths, up and then back down, running on the down count, switching off on occasion to focus my attention instead on various sensations in the body, mostly the legs, observing without judgment that my right achilles was tight, or my quads were starting to feel a bit of ache. This is a practice I learned years ago, and I need to get back to it. When I do it, nothing sneaks up on me. I find myself getting fascinated by my various aches and pains, and I just move through them with curiosity as I feel their ebb and flow. Hours passed this way, and soon it was getting dark and I was coming upon more runners.
The sun was getting low when I came upon a relay runner who seemed to be struggling a little. She was afraid it would get dark before she got to the next aid station, and didn’t have a light. She hadn’t planned on being out that long. I did not have a spare light to loan her, and wanted to put as much trail behind me as I could before it got dark, so I didn’t slow down to walk her in. There were plenty of runners behind her, I reckoned. A mile or so later I felt guilty.
It was dark by the time I got to Boundary. I sat down next to a guy – Jeff – with whom I’d run briefly at the beginning of the race, before he surged ahead. At Boundary, he was not feeling good, and talking about dropping. This was just past the midpoint of the race, and I took a few minutes longer than usual, changing into clean socks and taking in some food before heading back out.
Where the Wild Things Are. Miles 55 – 85
The course switched from dirt road to trail and moved back into the woods, continuing along the Arizona Trail, singletrack winding through forest, sometimes nice and smooth, oftentimes rocky. The minimal and not reflective course markings were harder to find at night, and I became reliant on the AZT signs, which did reflect. There were frequent unmarked intersection with other human and game trails, and it was seldom difficult to figure out which way to go, but you needed to be paying attention.
Night running is difficult for me, and I slipped into a low spot here that would more or less continue until sunrise. I feel a little claustrophobic only being able to see what’s in the cone of light from my headlamp. I’ve never gotten used to that feeling. I usually prefer running alone, but at night I start feeling a real loneliness.
Elk were bugling, loudly, and they sounded nearby. There were a lot of them. This is the Rut, which is the mating season for elk, unusual because most other mammals mate in the spring but the elk want their calves to be born when the grass is greenest and most plentiful. Bull elk are all about displaying their dominance. The bigger the bugle, the bigger the bull. The bulls have wallowed through mud and sprayed themselves with their own urine; the bigger the smell, the bigger the bull. The point of it all is to attract female elk, or cows. The cows are looking for the biggest, baddest bull who will give them the biggest, strongest calf. The bull gathers his cows in harems, and then works hard to keep those harems together, aggressively making sure cows don’t wander off. The display of dominance is also to keep other younger, smaller bulls away. Fights are not unusual.
The rut is not a time to get in between an elk bull and the object of his affection. All that bugling was making me nervous, especially because vision is limited at night, and we humans don’t have much in the way of other senses. I slowed down my pace a little to make sure there were other headlamps in sight. I probably wasn’t the only one doing this. In the Babbitt Ranch section, where we could see for miles, runners were mostly spread out and running alone, but at night they seemed to coalesce at aid stations and form packs.
Alone in the dark.
“We made too many wrong mistakes.” – Yogi Berra
There are some aid stations at every race that seem to be these vital spots for runners to meet with crew, have emotional meltdowns, try to get their shit together, and hopefully push forward to finish the race. Usually but not always, they come somewhere around the 3/4 mark. Runners get there in the early hours of the morning, cold and exhausted, when their strength is low and their doubts are high. There are few worse places for me to be. I have a history in races of getting overwhelmed by other people’s emotions. I’ve arrived at aid stations doing just fine only to get infected by the mob panic and drop from the race.
It’s even worse if I’m in a bad mood myself, and as I approached Hull I was in a bad mood. The steep downhill on road was not fun, and it seemed to go on and on and on, this because I missed a sharp left turn that was marked by a large but not reflective wooden sign that I did not see because I was running with my head down. I saw headlamps to my left, above me, and backtracked up the hill. Once I reached the aid station I was pissed off, and I did not want to snap at any of the volunteers and feel worse, so I called out my number and then turned around and headed back out. There was nothing I needed in my drop bag anyhow except maybe a 5 hour energy drink.
“You got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” – Yogi Berra
Soon enough I was back on a rocky trail that wound through the forest. The bugling elk seemed mostly behind me, which was good. It was around 4:30 in the morning, and something happened that has never happened to me before in a 100 mile race: I started falling asleep on my feet. Maybe I should’ve taken that 5 hour energy thing.
Some guy passed me. He was running well. I stopped to have a gel, and sat for a moment. When I got back up I took a wrong turn and headed up some other trail. At some point, the trail fizzled out. I came upon the bleached skeleton of some animal, maybe a cow: the skull, backbone and ribs all attached. It was kind of awesome, and kind of gruesome. I figured I’d gotten off trail somehow and turned around to head back. I trudged down the trail for a while, shining my flashlight around, hoping the light would catch on one of the reflective AZT markers. Nothing. I kept walking. The trail petered out in this other direction, too, which made no sense as I’d obviously been on the AZT only a few minutes before.
There were all sorts of trails crossing back and forth. I’m not great at orienteering. The moon was visible, which gave me some sense of direction, except that I really didn;t know what direction I was going in when I got lost. I was tired. I wandered around a little more. Every trail that looked promising sort of vanished after 100 yards or so. Maybe if I could get back to the skeleton at least I would know I was close, but I couldn’t find it either. I looked around for headlamps. Nothing. I tried yelling for help. Nothing. A while had passed. I sat on a stump and thought about things. The moon went down. Soon enough it would be daylight, and it might get hot. Eventually someone would notice I was long overdue at the next aid station and maybe they would start sending out search and rescue. At Hull I’d concluded I had enough water to get me to Waterson, but I wasn’t sure I had enough to get me through a hot Arizona Sunday. I yelled a few more times. Eventually I decided I should stop this, too, and preserve my voice.
“I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?” – Yogi Berra
Dawn came. I continued listening carefully for sounds of runners. I thought I heard voices. I yelled again: “Hello… anybody… runners… I’m lost… help”
And somebody responded. The voice came from the exact opposite direction I though the trail was in. I thought I saw a headlamp. I yelled again “I’m lost. Please wave your headlamp” They did, and they yelled back. Had I not been so tired I’d’ve been ecstatic. I started heading through the woods in a straight line to the person. It turned out to be a group of people, about 10 runners and their pacers.
One of them said “We thought you were some camper who had lost his dog.” Others had earbuds in, and didn’t hear anything. They looked at me wearily and continued trudging.
The trail here was so obvious I couldn’t understand how I’d gotten lost. The runners were headed opposite the direction I expected. I was stoked to realize that I only had about 15 miles left in the race, and that it was possible to still actually finish with a good time. I was also kind of delighted to be delighted, since I am not known as a guy who deals well with this kind of stuff. I’ve dropped out of races for things a lot less serious than being lost for hours. But there was no point in dropping. That would have just made a shitty situation worse.
I figured maybe it was karma for not helping the relay runner who was running out of light because I did not want to sacrifice my race for her bad planning. I tried to blame poor course markings, but that didn’t really work because I knew long before I was lost that the course was sparsely marked and it was up to me to stay on trail.
And then we were done.
I was overjoyed at having been found. I looked around at my rescuers. There were a few fresh looking pacers, and a pack of runners who looked exhausted. The runners did not give a rat’s ass that they’d rescued somebody. They just wanted to get the race finished.
I started running gently, slowly pulling away from the pack. I spotted this guy Jeff who I’d chatted with a bit in the first 15 miles or so and had last seen at Boundary, where it looked as though he would drop.
We got to the mile 88 aid station. I dumped as much stuff as I could, so that I’d be light for these last miles. This took a few minutes. I passed a few people and then the adrenaline surge from having been lost and rescued wore off and I slowed to a walk. My legs were sore. I wasn’t going to have a spectacular time, but I would still finish and possibly even PR. Those last 12 miles took a long time.
How did I feel when I finished? Relieved? No – relief is what I felt when I spotted those other runners. Relief is what I felt when I got to the last aid station, 12 miles left to, knowing I would finish with plenty of time left on the clock when not too much earlier I was wondering how late in the day it would get before I was found.
Ecstatic? Overjoyed? No – those were things I felt when I found the other runners, or they found me, got back on the trail, got to mile 88… I was manic when I hit that aid station. There was lots of adrenaline flowing. The adrenaline dissipated in the miles soon after the last aid station. My muscles tightened up, and I was content to hike it in, even though this delayed getting to the finish line, and I’d reached a point where I wanted the race to be over sooner rather than later.
Once across the finish line I was mostly just satisfied.
“Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical” – Yogi Berra
This race had been a huge “shit happens” situation, and dealing with a shit happens situation is probably better for me than a good race time, because I had finally proven to myself that I can handle some genuine adversity in a race, and that I can also handle being frightened, since fear is usually what derails things.Running a sub 24 hour 100 miler or setting some other PR is much less of a priority than overcoming my fears and frustrations. I had failed to do this at High Lonesome, just as I’ve failed at AC100. At Stagecoach I had been genuinely lost, and there was, for once, real reason to be afraid, and I’d responded well, for a change.
Ultrarunning is something I choose to do, not something I have to do. Long training runs alone up in the mountains give me the escape into quiet that I need almost like food and oxygen. Hundred mile races present mental and emotional challenges that I’ve too frequently not been ready for. The physical challenges are not as big a deal, because the mental always gets me first. As best I can tell, I’ve never run anywhere near my physical limits, not since those 400 meter days in high school.
I’d set a PR, but I was still at least an hour and a half short of what it could have been, had I not gotten lost. I was content with that, and contentment is one of the gentlest of emotions. Andrea was at the finish. She’d gotten her sub 24. She wandered off to sleep and I got some food.
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