Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run | Utah | September 6, 2013
The Dive and The Plunge
By Gary Dudney
If you don’t arrive at Wasatch a little scared, you haven’t done your homework. The storied fourth leg of ultrarunning’s Grand Slam is a tough slog in a sport known specifically for tough slogs. Compare runners’ finishing times across other 100 mile runs and Wasatch comes out ahead, that is, the toughest of the “standard” 100s. (That’s relegating Hardrock with its 48 hour time limit to another category.)
There’s an odd, bifurcated atmosphere to the race orientation at Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City the day before the race. On the one hand, there are many race veterans here, mostly Utah locals, who have returned to the challenge once again. They smile wanly at the innocent remarks made by newbies. They say little but can’t help but give off a vibe that something very bad is about to happen to everyone.
Race Director John Grobben, who has obviously been doing this for a long while, dispatches questions with aplomb. “The course is well marked. There are confidence ribbons everywhere. You won’t get lost. The communications and the website tracking is the best in the business. You can bring trekking poles but you can’t stab people with them. Park here. Don’t park there.”
On the other hand, there are the first timers who are bubbly and effervescent; they’re getting their shot at the big baboo. “How bad can it be?” The old timers look down at their feet and shuffle nervously.
The next morning, Wasatch comes out swinging with a four thousand foot climb right from the start. On the way up, a light grows over the Great Salt Lake to our west. I notice after an hour of climbing it stills looks like you could bushwhack to the highway below in about five minutes. The ridge above seems to grow higher as we climb. At Chinscraper Summit a man with a cow bell is shouting encouragement to runners negotiating the last steep section to the top. He suggests going left, the North Face Route, rather than go right, the South Col Route. You grapple up with your hands and could actually have a climbing accident.
The first aid station comes at a staggering 19 miles into the run.
The mountains are gorgeous. You spend all day scrambling across grassy ridges over rough trail, up steep switchbacks. This was a hot year, so the exposed slopes hang you out to dry and as the afternoon wears on, nausea sets in for those not eating properly. The halfway point starts to look like a challenge in itself.
There is a final frustrating two mile push away from the aid station at Lamb’s Canyon before coming back to it. While descending, you look across Highway I-80 at the even taller mountains you will visit in the next fifty miles. Despite terrific support at the aid stations, volunteers bringing your drop bag as you approach, bountiful food and drink, people ready to wait on you hand and foot; the heat, the 8,000 feet of elevation over the first fifty miles, and the awesome challenge left ahead wipe many runners out at Lamb’s. Having traversed the first fifty miles, it is hard to imagine that the next fifty can be exponentially harder, yet at Wasatch, believe it.
After Lamb’s, the course is almost all major climb until you are back to over 9,000 feet. The goal is to get to Brighton Lodge, a big indoors aid station at about 75 miles that is like checking into a five-star hotel after being lost in the desert. Inside blasted looking runners listen to their handlers assuring them they are doing the “smart thing” by dropping.
The climb out of Brighton leads through a weird, moonlit landscape of boulders, mountain lakes, rock walls, gnarled pine trees, and alpine meadows. The trail peaks at Sunset Pass at 10, 467 feet and then presents runners with the first of the “chutes and slides” trails that will highlight the rest of the race.
Imagine a steep trail that is essentially a big rut with loose rock and dirt at the bottom. The narrow shoulders of the trail slant inward and are too slippery to offer any footing. Step in the middle of the rut and the debris slides away beneath you. In other words, here is a trail you could walk up with difficulty but there is no way I could discover to go down except to hop from buried rock to buried rock, hold on to tree branches, or skip from side to side risking disaster with each step. The result on your feet is catastrophic. They go from tender and sore to hamburger.
But wait, there’s more…
The whole race seems just a prelude to an infamous nine plus mile stretch between Pole Line Pass (mile 83.4) and Pot Bottom (mile 92.0) that the website warns might take 4 to 6 hours. “What?” one wonders, “that’s barely two miles an hour and there’s an elevation loss of about 1500 feet. Surely…”
But in the event, working through “The Dive” and “The Plunge,” two particularly nasty stretches of chutes and slides, and encountering the endless false bottoms of this stretch breaks you down like a wet cardboard box. I could feel pieces coming off and things crumbling. Here the veterans I encountered trudging along quiet and resigned were all realist. When I questioned how we could keep going uphill in a section with a net drop, they said, “Wait till we get to The Plunge, then you’ll be wishing for uphill.” When I asked if the next downhill led to Pot Bottom, they smiled and straight-faced said race management adds a new canyon every year so you’re always guessing when it will end.
Heat was again a factor on Day 2 making the afternoon finish at Soldier’s Hollow even more hard won. The final finishers, however, got caught in a sudden rain that whipped through the area and dampened the awards ceremony.
I caught a ride back to Salt Lake City in a van that happened to include Liza Canowitz, a Grand Slammer, and her husband Paul Lincke, who finished Wasatch along with her in a little under 33 hours. Sarah Evans McCloskey, the women’s winner, was in the van and Ivars Ragainis, a very affable runner from Latvia, who finished in 31:45. We traded our ultrarunning stories, all happy, successful on this day, fulfilled, finished. But when Ivars left the van, we all watched as he mounted a set of stairs to where he was staying. He placed one foot on a step, painfully raised himself to that step, then one more foot, one more step, like he was about to break through thin ice.
The sight was a testament to Wasatch, to a very fine race through the mountains, to the spirit of ultrarunners.