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Sufferance: My Journey Through The Ute 100

By Stormy Phillips, Oklahoma Ultra Runner

DRIVE

So, here I am. Months of training for the biggest race on the biggest stage in ultrarunning and after 42 miles of having the race of my life, it has all come apart. As I took the last few steps up Devil’s Thumb I knew that my Western States dream was over. The wonderful volunteers were rushing around me doing everything they could to repair my revolting body, but the bigger issue was my mind. Returning to this place of physical pain in the same area of the course where I fell apart in 2016 was just too much. After 12 consecutive 100-mile finishes, I knew deep down that somehow this was different—a new low. I would eventually get up and slowly make my way to Michigan Bluff where my crew was waiting, but in my mind, I had completely broken.

By the time I reached my crew, I had gone from a 20-hour pace to making it to mile 55 in the dark. I heard the horn blow for 10 minutes to cutoff as I made it into the aid station, but I felt that I had come to terms with this. I felt I was ready for my first 100-mile DNF, but reality came crashing in as the medic at the aid station leaned over and cut the yellow band from my wrist, signifying an official drop. I lost all control. I began sobbing and then crying uncontrollably. This thing that was so important to me, this thing that I had built my whole existence around for the last half year had slipped through my hands because I had let it. I could feel the weight of the decision crushing me before I even made my way to the crew car. I had let my crew down, I had let my pacers down, I had let down all those rooting for me back home, and most painfully I had let myself down. The fortress that I had constructed to weather the storm of emotions and pain that come with running 100 miles was destroyed and part of the person I was back at the starting line in Squaw had been destroyed with it.

After the race, I tried to stay positive and play the role of humble runner. Surrounded by the massive group of close friends who came out to support me, what else could I do? Here were those closest to me that had taken their time and vacation to come out to California to be part of my victory, and now we had to make small talk and avoid the 900-pound gorilla that had taken up residence on my back. There were plenty of reasons for the race not to go well. Could it have been the pelvic stress fracture in December that threw off my early training? Could it have been the stress of changing jobs? Could it have been all the drama from moving into a new home a week before the race? In the end I decided it didn’t matter. The result was still the same—I failed and making all those around me miserable was not going to magically change reality and put me back on that course.

So, I had to do what we all do when we hit the ground. We must dust ourselves off and get ready for the next car coming our way. For me that would be the very first Ute 100. I had agreed to do the race earlier in the year when my good friend Deirdre Greenholz was unable to run. I would not have much time between the late June Western States and this race at the end of August, and absolutely would not have time for a pity party.

Western States

EDUCATION

As one might imagine, the weeks between the races flew by, but lessons were learned. I took a new approach to my training and started to get back to the basics that originally made me fall in love with running. Rather than just getting the runs in by shooting out the front door, I made time to run with others, I spent more time on the trails, and I even went back out to the gravel roads that were my original training grounds.

The most important thing that would happen during this training period is that, for the first time in a while, I would find an actual training partner. Bevin Ver Brugge and I had run together a few times before but now we were hooking up for runs on a regular basis and sharing stories about why and how we run. This really gave me some perspective on how far my running had drifted from my core. It was these training runs that would help bring me back to center.

Then, a few weeks before the Ute race, the best news came. Bevin agreed to come out and help with the crewing and pacing. To this point, the race was just going to be my wife, Brynna, and I at the race. This would mean that Brynna would have to be alert the whole time and would be unable to realistically pace me if I needed it. Now with Bevin coming, we could split up duties and I could have a “unicorn” (Ute term for pacer) during the race. Despite my shaken confidence after Western, I was beginning to entertain the thought that I might be able to pull this thing off.

Western States

Now, with most of our vacation and funds going to Western, this Ute race was going to be a very fast trip. So, late Wednesday before the event, we rolled out of Tulsa in our Honda Pilot and began our journey to Dillon, Colorado—our stop for the first night. The trip from Tulsa to Moab is about 15 hours, so splitting it up made it less of an ordeal. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but some of the sights seemed to make the trouble worth it. There was also the bonus of all of us getting a chance to talk and become closer friends on the way out.

Before we knew it, we were making our way into Moab and getting ready for check-in. Of all the things I loved about the Ute race, this check-in process was one of the few negatives. We needed to pick up packets between 5 and 7 PM on Friday with a mandatory meeting from 7 to 7:30 (it really went on closer to 8). By the time I got back to our hotel room and made sure that I had everything laid out and ready for in the morning, it was about 10 PM before I finally got to sleep. There was also a pre-race check-in that started at 2 AM Saturday. Well, since the race start is in La Sal and our hotel was in Moab, we needed about 45 minutes to get there. I set my alarm for 1 AM and figured if we left the hotel by 1:45 I would still have enough time to check in before the 3 AM race start. All of this went according to plan, but it did not allow for much sleep before a 40-hour race, and that would be a big factor in the event for me.

Had we spent the money to fly out or travel earlier, I might have been able to work my sleep schedule a different way. It also would have been nice to have the meeting early on Friday and had the rest of the day to rest. All this aside, the race was inevitably happening and after some last-minute running around and checking my pack at the start line, the countdown began and those first steps into the dark were taken. A journey of thousands of steps began here on this dusty road. Would it be a road to redemption? At this point I did not know, but here I go again.

Oklahomans Ute 100

LAUNCH

On paper, the Ute course does not seem to warrant a 40-hour cutoff. The climbing is just under 19,000 feet and the altitude is high, but does not seem unreasonable. The course is, however, unforgiving. The runners are immediately introduced to this in the 14-mile section to the first aid station with over 4,000 feet of climbing. Then, over the next section, we would work our way down a six-mile descent, only to climb for another six miles to aid station two at mile 26. I was able to follow the course easily, as the markings were very well done—in the first section that took place in the dark, there were even these sweet LED lights to mark your way. This was the first time that I had seen lights like that in a race and, while I am sure it took a lot of effort to put them out, it was an amazing addition to the event and removed any doubt as to where you needed to be.

I was moving well over these first sections but was falling behind on calories. The dry air was making it difficult to get much down and the food I did put away took a lot of effort. I was getting further behind than I realized, as I am not accustomed to wearing a pack and this was causing me to hold in more heat than I thought (wearing a hydration pack was a requirement for the race). So, even though I did not feel particularly warm by the time I got to the first crew station at mile 32, I had a solid amount of salt crusting my shirt.

Western States

At aid station one, I met up with a runner named Dale and he had a great run/walk rhythm going. We shared a few stories and that section went by very smoothly. But Dale did not have a crew at this race, so he took some time at aid station two. I knew that I would have a longer stop at the crew stop just past this aid station, so we parted ways. My hope was that I might meet up with him again after the crew stop and we could share some more miles, but that would end up not happening.

The climb out of aid station two is not bad, but it is exposed and is then followed by a section of exposed downhills. I was feeling pretty good, so I took those downhill sections fairly hard. By the time I got to my crew, the lack of food and sleep was catching up with me. I came into the station feeling a little off and decided I would take some time here to get some food down before heading back out. I sat in the chair that my crew had managed to borrow from Justin McCune’s team and started to down some peanuts. It did not take long before I realized that the quick rush of food and the water I had downed coming into the aid station were coming back up. But, after a little time throwing up, I really didn’t feel bad. I chalked it up to drinking too much too fast and decided to keep moving down the trail toward aid station three and the climb up Mann’s Peak before I would see the crew again.

CRASH AND BURN

In the few miles between the crew spot and aid station three, things began to go south. All of a sudden, I was having real difficulty getting anything down and even stopped for a spell on a log to try and take some salt tabs to see if I could get things back in order. Lucky for me, aid station three was only a few miles from the crew stop and soon enough I rolled in there. I was lucky for the group of volunteers that worked that aid station because they had no time for BS. They knew that we had a major climb to the highest point on the course after leaving that point and they were not about to let us head up there without being ready. They made me sit down for a while and told me to get some calories down. I made a feeble attempt and saw Dale come through the station. I jumped out of my chair and decided, come hell or high water, I was going to try and hang onto Dale’s coattails for the summit. The aid station captain came straight up to me and told me to sit my butt down because I was not ready to go anywhere. It crushed me, but I knew he was right, and thank God he had enough awareness to keep me from being any stupider than I already was.

After some food and feeling a little better, I finally made my way toward the summit. I came out of the station feeling pretty good, but the feeling was short-lived—about a mile down the trail, the stomach flips would start again and most of the food I managed to get down was coming back up. I kept moving forward up the increasingly steep climb and runners continued to pass me. Before long, the trees were becoming scarcer and the number of rocks increased. At about 12,000 feet, we made our way over a series of awesome rock steps constructed in a scree field. Even though I could see above me, I held hope that these stairs would take me to the top, but as we cleared this rock field I was greeted by two things: one, a view that made every bit of pain and agony that I had suffered to this point worth it, and two, a green field with a line of pink ribbons heading straight up toward the summit. The climb was slow and brutal, but at the top I could hear the Beastie Boys blasting from a small boom box, calling me home. At the top, I took a short rest and took a rare, for me, mid-race photo before tackling one of the most difficult parts of the course—the scree field on the descent to aid station four and the next crew stop.

THE SHIFT

The descent was a welcome relief from the climbing, but the technical nature made it difficult to keep your feet under you. After what seemed like an unreasonable amount of time, I made my way into aid station four. As was becoming the habit, I was hitting a low point about the time I came into the aid station, but this time the issue was clear—I was exhausted. My hope was to jump into the back of the crew car and try and get 20 minutes of rest, but to my horror the crew informed me that the car was not near the station and I was not going to be allowed to get into it per the race rules. So, I laid down in the middle of the first aid area of the aid station and tried in vain to get some rest.

 

 

After 10 minutes it was clear that there was too much action in the station to get any sleep, so I sat up and tried to get some food down. If, by now, you have seen a pattern of what happens when I tried to eat during this race, then you probably know how this went. I had a choice to make: I could get up and keep moving or just sit here and feel like crap. The choice was easy because I had a secret weapon—when I left this aid station I would not be going alone. My pacer, Bevin would be heading out with me for the next 26 miles and as a super bonus the race director had decided that my crew could hit the aid station in between; so, now I would see Brynna two more times before mile 70.

Western States

As I was leaving the aid station, I talked with a runner who had been there for a while and was considering dropping. His name was Jacob Dinardi and I told him he should really try and keep going. I mean, compared to me he looked like he was winning this thing. Bevin and I headed down the trail and within a mile we were joined by another runner, Jacob.

Here we made our way across an amazing field with views of Monument Valley, which, combined with the sun getting low, was a sight that made it easy to see why this has been a sacred place for centuries. We had deep discussions about why we run and shared stories of our triumphs and failures. One of the most special things about ultrarunning is that you have such a deep connection and understanding with other runners that you can be open in ways that are rarely found outside the race.

Western States

At this point, I had serious doubts as to whether I would be able to finish the race or not, but these few miles running and sharing with Bevin and Jacob changed my view. Not to one of confidence about me reaching the finish, but to one where it no longer mattered. If things did not go my way, that would be ok. I had found my purpose in this race. It was worth being here, no matter what happened, because of these moments.

By the time we reached the next water drop it was clear that Jacob was feeling better and I was continuing to deteriorate, so I told him I was going to try, once again, to rest for a moment, but I wanted him to keep moving and if all worked out I hoped to see him again at the finish. I might also mention that this was his first attempt at 100 miles. I knew that he would go on to finish, because I knew what kind of person he was. Everything I needed to know about him was revealed to me when he got up and left that previous aid station. He headed on down the trail and Bevin helped me break down some water boxes to make a place to lay down behind the station. The flies would not allow for much rest, but the time allowed me to regroup a little, and before too long we were on our way.

Darkness had fallen on the course and we were soon greeted by an amazing night sky that reminded me of childhood days of growing up in the country. For all this race was doing to break me down, the gifts it gave were equally as powerful.

CLOSE CALLS IN THE DARK

The climbs and stomach troubles continued and the movement was slow, but Bevin kept me moving and I knew each step would take me closer to my next meeting with Brynna and the hope that I could at some point rest. The next aid station would answer that call. When we finally rolled into the station I told them I had no choice—if I had any hope of finishing, I had to try and get some sleep. With an agreement that I would lay down for 45 minutes, my hope was that my body would find a way to reset. I had not kept food down for many hours and the lack of sleep compounded the issues. I do not know how much rest I got, but soon the phone was beeping and I knew I had to keep moving. I grabbed some food from the aid station and made my way down the trail with Bevin to descend to the bottom of a valley that would start our next 4,000+ foot climb. The rest must have done some good because for the first time in many miles, we started to pick it up. And soon we even picked off a few runners.

For this year’s race there was a new moon, so the course was very dark, but the sky was made even more impressive by the darkness and we had a bonus in that Mars was in full view with a deep red light. Such a wonderful treat to draw our minds out of the dark places. Conversation with Bevin was getting less frequent due to the dry air. Plus, I was playing a balancing game of trying to drink enough water to stay hydrated, but not so much as to make myself sick. This next section went by very fast despite the climbing and we were rip roaring ready to go (comparatively) for the second half of the climb by the time we returned to the aid station.

The next section would test our limits and I would grow to hate the LED lights that I so praised in the beginning of the race. As we climbed, I could see all the lights above me as a constant reminder that we were nowhere near the top. It was on this stretch that two major things of note happened. First, I thought I was going to see Bevin die. As she bent over to pick up some trash from the trail, she came up a little too fast and leaned a little too far back. She tipped toward the edge and my reaction time was so bad at this point that I was helpless to do anything but watch. Luckily, she still had enough dexterity to right herself and remain on the trail. This added some extra elevated heart rate as we continued up the climb. The next came on the descent. As we made our way from the top of the pass back down to the aid station, I began to feel a strange tingle in my hands and then arms. Soon my face felt as if I had just come from the dentist. As the feeling became more prevalent I finally informed Bevin that something was wrong and she turned back to look at me. The look in her eyes told me everything I needed to know and nothing was said other than we need to get to the aid station. By the grace of God, we soon came into the aid station and I talked to the great volunteers there. Turns out that the pack, which I did not commonly run with, must have been cutting off some circulation and, coupled with the pressure I was putting on my poles, it accounted for the strange numbness. The biggest issue that the numbness would cause is that the lack of feeling in my hands led me to spill an entire cup of hot ramen into my shorts.

At this point I was getting fired up, in a good way. Brynna and Bevin could see it—I was more animated and I could feel the sunrise coming. We might have had only about 30 minutes before cutoff at this aid station, but for the first time I felt like this was going to happen. I was going to finish this race. Bevin’s scheduled pacing duties were over at this point, but to my relief she said F that and kept going with me. We left that aid station on a mission. It might have looked like we were chasing cutoffs, but in reality I was chasing much more. I was chasing redemption and the little bit of myself that had been torn away those months ago on the Western States course.

Western States

RENEWAL

We pushed hard and with the sun coming up we felt new life. At the next aid station, we were so far ahead of our projected time that Brynna almost missed us. That was a great boost, but soon we would have an even bigger one. As we rolled into the station, sitting there with a big plate of food was Jacob. He had experienced some rough spots overnight, but was still moving and with all this time left I knew for sure he was on his way to the finish. We talked for a moment and I downed some ramen, then we were on our way. At this point it seemed nothing could derail this train. There were still significant climbs to come, but the mind was back and things were moving in a positive direction. I was buoyed by the fact that every runner we passed seemed to comment on how much of a comeback I was making (as I looked like death last time they saw me).

Western States

In what seemed like an instant, despite some cursing about the definition of “rollers,” we were at the last aid station. It would just be 12 miles from this point with one major climb before the last water drop 3.5 miles from the finish. Now we had a little decision to make. My pacer had never run more than 34 miles and, despite our slow pace, she had been at it all night and had dealt with some major climbs. If she went with me to the end, that would put her at 55 miles, all while dealing with a lot of heat. Brynna was ready to jump in if I wanted but I left it up to them. I did not trust myself to make any decisions and I owed them both so much. I could see in Bevin’s eyes that she was feeling the effects of running all night, but had a deep desire to continue. After an internal struggle, she knew what she had to do. She stood up, composed herself, and said let’s finish this thing. I was proud of her and despite the crazy rush of emotions from all the love from her and Brynna, coupled with the volunteers and amazing scenery, we had to keep moving. We headed down the trail into terrain that more suits my running style (rolling hills and slow downhill) and pushed to the end.

REDEMPTION

The last climb was shorter than the other major uphill sections but this one had no switchbacks. It was clear the race director was not going to give us anything. If we wanted to reach the finish, we were going to have to earn it. But, like all things in races, it eventually ended and we started the very steep descent into the heat on our way to the finish.

At this point is seemed that all the challenges were behind us and we could enjoy the run and the last few views of the race, but as usual there was one more unexpected major obstacle to overcome. About two miles from the last water drop, it became clear that we did not have enough water to make it the whole way. Our last sips from the bottle came about 1.5 miles from that drop. Here, we were at a lower elevation and out of the forest of aspens and were totally exposed. The heat and dryness were overcoming us quickly. There was serious consideration about jumping down in a ditch and trying to fish water out of the creek, but the running gods smiled on us and clouds rolled in and a light rain started. It was just enough to bring us to the water drop.

From there, we made a solid pace to the finish. Brynna came out to greet us and 36 hours after leaving the campground, we turned back in and there was the Run Bum himself waiting for us at the finish. The finish was just what I needed—no fancy arch or crazy dance party, just some hardcore runners, a few great volunteers, and most importantly, Brynna and Bevin.

Western States

REMINDERS

This race might not have gone the way I planned weeks beforehand, with arbitrary numbers and times. Dreams of particular paces or some overall finish were replaced on the course with something far more valuable—a reminder of why, in 2010, I started this journey of running 100-mile races.

When you come from a humble background, like I did, it is easy to feel like a poser in your life—like you have somehow cheated your way to any success you achieve, making any social situation seem like a play you are merely an actor in. But out there on the trails in a 100-mile race, we face the great equalizer. It does not matter what kind of car I drive, or how much money I have in the bank, or how many square feet my house is. Out in the brush, I will face the same challenges and the same climbs as every runner on the course. While we are a great community, we must each face these challenges alone. Each runner will have to slay their own demons and find the person they were meant to be.

Western States

I honestly do not believe that running makes you a better person, rather I have faith that we are all great people and running helps us dig out of the noise and find that person inside. A reminder of who we should be—a person of commitment, a person of excellence, a person who will pay any price to follow their dreams.

To drive that point home, I knew I still had unfinished business when I crossed the finish line, so I stood and watched the horizon. I did not have to wait long. Down the road came the silhouette I was looking for, as Jacob turned into the campground a joined the club as a 100-mile finisher. Sean, the Rum Bum, embraced him and welcomed him back, then I snuck in and offered a hug and a small word as to how proud I was of his efforts and that he should remember that these moments matter.

Stormy Phillips


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