This year I wanted to do an epic, destination 100-mile race, I entered the lotteries for Western States and UTMB and was unsuccessful in both. Next-up, my eye fell on Leadville – the “Race across the sky” made famous in Christopher McDougals book “Born To Run”, I also started looking at other, less well known American 100s and finally settled on The Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run, committed myself to the $190 entry and booked flights – I was going across the pond to play with the big boys in the mountains.
With nearly 27,000′ of ascent it seemed to tick all the boxes, big ascents but not stupidly high or steep, not too hot or cold, spectacular scenery and a finish rate in the 80% range which is unusual for a 100-miler.
The more I heard about the race, the more I liked it. Not as big or crowded as the iconic US races but still attracting some pretty tasty names from the ultra running scene. The website where you enter the race has a list of all the registered entrants, I contacted the other Brits registered – Tim Adams and Traviss Willcox and we build up a bit of a rapport over the weeks leading up to the race.
Finally September arrived and I flew to LA on Sunday before picking up a hire car and driving 1200 miles across America to Logan in Northern Utah, (that in itself was an adventure, but not one for here-and-now). The hotels in Logan were packed with people wearing various t-shirts and caps from races you only read about, “Western States”, “Leadville”, “Hardrock” etc… The car park was filled with personalised number plates such as “N8RUNR” and “GSLAM04” – there was a buzz in the air.
The race briefing and registration was on Thursday just out of town at 4pm, I met up with Tim who introduced me to a few people he knew from his adventures at Leadville and Hardrock. Everyone seemed to know each other, it was great – there was a real community feeling in the air. Tim hooked me up with John – a Texan he’d run Hardrock with who I’d co-incidentally met in the hotel car park. He offered to give me a lift to the start the following day, so we agreed to meet in the lobby at 05:00
The race is described as “36 hours of Indian Summer” – now, to me – that means nice and warm. I’d expected the weather to be warm in the day but cool at night and had packed accordingly. The week leading up to the race was hot, up in the 90’s and I was a bit concerned about the heat. Then it all changed on Wednesday, a cold front came and the temperature dropped 30 degrees overnight. Driving into Logan over some of the higher plains in Wyoming there were blizzards and up on the peaks of the mountain range we’d be traversing – an ominous layer of white!
Fortunately, I’d packed expecting freezing weather at night so had my jacket, arm warmers, gloves and mittens, (no leggings though) at the race briefing i managed to blag a long-sleeved tech top so I threw it into the 52-mile aid station drop bag just in case. Expecting it to be wet, I opted for the close close fitting Skins shorts with trail shorts on top for extra warmth, below the knee down to my socks would just have to tough it out.
After an early night 04:00 on Race Day finally arrived, the usual preparations made I met John in the hotel lobby and we headed off to the race start at the base of the mountain. Tim appeared and said hi and I was introduced to more of the community before we all headed back to the car to warm-up and wait for the start at 06:00
The start caught me off-guard as I was busy changing from lightweight gloves to my waterproof mittens so was scrabbling around with my pack on the floor. Suddenly a cheer went up and 250-or-so people headed off in the dark through a housing estate. Hastily throwing my pack back together I legged-it up the road, around a corner and up a hill on a residential street.
Soon we hit the trail and single track, this was the start of the first, and longest climb of around 3,800′ over 10 miles. Most of it was single track on switchbacks up the side of the mountain and through forest sections – there was no point trying to overtake, it wouldn’t have got you any further up the field – you just had to settle into the group you were in and go at that pace which, if I’m honest – felt a little bit too hard for me this early.
Slowly it started to get light and the mountains came to life, we started moving up towards the clouds and Logan and the start line was revealed below. Just before hitting the cloud line I bumped into Traviss who was taking a photo of a particularly stunning vista, we did the old “you take one of me, and I’ll take one of you” camera swap and set off for the next uphill section to the first aid station.
Once above about 8,000′ the air became noticeably thinner and breathing became noticeably more difficult, having never really been up to altitude I didn’t know how this was going to affect me. The race never goes much above 9,000′ but spends quite a lot of time up in the 8,000 range and boy was it noticeable when you hit that elevation, time and time again.
I’d not really made any time predictions for the race but had looked at previous results and times and thought that, on a perfect day I could go under 24 hours. The Bear has a generous 36-hour cutoff and rewards runners a category based on their finish time, with a corresponding belt buckle as follows
- Sub-24 Hours – Wolverine
- 24-30 Hours – Grizzly
- 30-36 Hours – Black Bear
I’d made up a little pace card with 24 and 30 hour pacing notes and times for each aid station, (AS) About halfway up the first climb I knew sub-24 wasn’t going to happen. This was a different league to what I’m used to, combined with the weather and the elevation aspects I decided to settle into a more relaxed pace and look into becoming a member of the Grizzly Club instead, sub-30 hours would do nicely – plus I’d actually like to be able to drive and walk the following week.
Anyway – back to the race, I lost Traviss somewhere before AS1. As the elevation increased it got colder, snow appeared and the wind picked up. I didn’t linger at AS1, my hands had seized up just taking them out of mittens to grab some food. The volunteers were amazing, here and throughout the whole race – every time you came in to an AS, someone would run up to you, grab your bottles fill them up and generally run around for you – it was great.
The reward for all that climbing was a 9-mile descent to AS2 on the side of the mountain through switchbacks and through the fall forests. This was easily the most enjoyable part of the race as we’d been hiking for 2.5 hours so it was nice to stretch the legs out. Once again, most of this was singletrack, but I fell in with a group of people and everyone chatted away. The first question is always “Where you from”, so having the advantage of being from the UK, I always had someone to talk to. The Yanks all seemed to be interested in the UK/Europe scene and fell running in particular.
Another thing that struck me again, and again is the community over in the States. There’s less of a club scene, and certainly nothing like we have in the UK – it has much more of a loose-knit, open feel with individuals organising races. I lost count of the number of times I got involved with a conversation that went “I’m the Race Director of A”, to which someone else would shout “oh Hey – you should come and run my race B” it was nice, just people doing what they love and sharing that with the community.
Coming out of AS2 I’d warmed-up and there was probably 4 hours or-so gone, the next section started fairly flat before heading up-and over a couple of peaks. As is fairly usual for me I had a bit of a crisis for a while, asking myself if I really wanted to do this – I was 6 hours-in and would be doing this for another day possibly? I knew how tough it was going to be, it’s really strange – this was a race I’d been looking forward to all year, I’d DNF’d at UTSW100 and cut TR24 short for, the trip was going to cost over £2,5000 all-in, and here I was thinking about quitting and going to the pub after 6 hours!
But – it wasn’t going to happen… Not today… No Sir! As I moved through the field I picked-up conversations with loads of people which kept my mind from betraying me. The Britsh accent always intrigues people – though I’ve been asked at least 3 times if I know Tim Herman, next time I’m going to reply – “Sure thing mate, Tim lives down the road, next door to David Beckham and Posh Spice”
The photos don’t really do the scenery justice, without suitable depth and perspective cameras always seem to “flatten out” mountains a bit. But the scenery was just incredible… The colours were spectacular, with the trees losing their leaves to the Fall, (oops – sorry, Autumn). The trails too, in general were immaculately maintained. They’re used by everyone from mountain bikers, campers and hunters on quad bikes/ATVs – a couple of times we had to give way to quad bikes filled with men in camouflage gear sporting big gun-shaped cases. There was also the occasions retort of what sounded like a powerful hunting rifle across the mountains.
On many sections of the trails, there were HUGE piles of dung – probably from grazing cattle but could it have been from a bear? Whatever it was – I wouldn’t have wanted to meet it at night, alone and in the dark. One of the Yanks started recalling accounts of Sasquatch, (Bigfoot to us) – yeah, cheers buddy.
The afternoon progressed, up and down a mountain or-two before a big climb up to Tony Grove at 52 miles. This was a long, nasty climb up a muddy trail which eventually turned to snow and ice. I was following a chap using hiking poles for a while – he seemed to be making good progress so I fashioned myself a pair out of a couple of tree branches! They helped a little on the uphill but I discarded them at the top.
Tony Grove was the first major AS and milestone for me, this was just over halfway and it would soon be dark with sunset at 19:30. I arrive at 18:45, well inside my 30-hour schedule – but it’s so cold here at over 8,000′ that I can’t stop for long. The free long-sleeve top I’d thrown into the drop bag goes-on, and my thin wool gloves under the mittens and I have to leave and get warm again. Really, I’d have liked to have stopped to have some soup, but I need to keep moving and keep warm.
The next 9 miles is amazing, after the punishing climb up to Tony Grove it’s a fantastic trail down through forests and across mountainous plateaus with the sun setting and the colours taking on different shades, finally it’s time to put the headtorch on and enter the world of night trail running for the next 11-12 hours.
I really enjoy night trail running, there’s something so relaxing about it – just you and your own little world illuminated a few yards ahead of you. You never really know what’s too far ahead which means you can’t see that massive hill until you’re upon it – so no need to worry about it.
The night heralds a series of up-and-down sections. Basically, it’s up-and-over a peak to an Aid Station, over-and-over again. The format starts to become familiar… Get to an AS, fill-up with food and water and head out onto a relatively easy climb on a nice trail. As the trail gets higher, and the air gets thinner, (at around 8000′) the trail gets rockier and steeper at which point you want to die. Arriving at the top, in the dark, half dead from exhaustion there’s a descent back down to the next AS – but somehow, this doesn’t seem to be worth the pain of the climb.
My 30-hour pace notes indicated to me that after 60 miles I could basically hike the rest of the race and still make it, so that was my plan and I don’t think I ran more than a few yards after about 10pm. On this terrain, walking is often quicker than running and I overtook lots and lots of people who were running bits of the course.
It was a long, hard night… After my earlier crisis of confidence, once I got to 60 miles I KNEW I was going to finish, the tough bit was done – all I needed to do was walk and eat for 12-13 hours and it was in the bag, any fool can do that.
Talking about eating, my nutrition strategy was the same as I’d used for NDW100 and Run24 which had worked well, namely – real food at the Aid Stations and gels in-between. This seemed to work OK, but as it could be 2-3 hours between aid stations and with gels only having 100 calories / each, getting 300 cals/hour means eating a lot of them. Which I did… Thankfully the aid stations were well supplied, but I was fed up of them by the end.
The Aid Stations were magnificent, as I said earlier – the volunteers couldn’t do enough for you. As night drew in, they all had roaring fires and chairs around them and lots of runners looked like they had succumbed to comfort – “Beware The Chair”. The hot food was very welcome, I’ll never forget the grilled cheese sandwich I had at about 2am, it was just about the nicest thing ever – especially after all those gels.
At around 3:30am I crossed over the state line into Idaho and was firmly on my way to Bear Lake now. Despite hiking I was staying around 90 minutes head of the 30-hour schedule so was happy to continue.
But it was a LONG night, about 12 hours of darkness which was tough – the night races I’ve done generally have 6-7 hours in summer. The other problem this caused me was with my headtorch. At around 4am it gave a warning flash, and then at 5am conked out totally, the rechargeable battery is supposed to last 14 hours but in the cold a lot less than that. I had a little LED backup light which I’d used in the morning so pulled that out but that failed too after a few minutes!
Bugger… It’s 5am, I’m on my own in the freezing cold, snowy trail somewhere on a mountain in Utah. I can’t see the trail markings, (which are reflective so, no light – no markings) this scared me for a minute or two. However, I figured someone wouldn’t be far behind so stopped and waited. Sure enough after a few minutes a bobbing headtorch appeared and I flagged the runner down.
“Hey – my headtorches have died, can I hang with you until it gets light please” I asked…
Roch turned to me and in his gravelly voice said
“I think I have a spare”
And with that he pulled out a lovely Black Diamond headtorch switched it on, handed it to me and ran off into the snowy mountains! What a guy… I later found out he’s a bit of a legend in the community and has run The Bear many times…
Eventually it got light and I approached the final few hours of my adventure, by now I’d been up for over 24 hours and expended a fair amount of energy during that time – it’s fair to say I was pretty tired. My eyes started playing tricks on me and I had some pretty great, (mild) visual and auditory hallucinations. The Marboro Man was waving to me at one point, and I also saw Rudolph a couple of times – on closer inspection, both turned out to be a pine tree covered in snow. I also started hearing rattling and thought they were rattlesnakes for a while, but convinced myself that snakes probably don’t like sub-zero conditions.
The mountains were beautiful at daybreak heading down to the final AS, I’d been warned about the last ascent. It looks tiny on the profile, but it’s short and vicious. I’d completely run out of energy by this point and couldn’t stomach any more gels, (having already gone “bear-style” in the woods a couple of times in the night). Somehow I dragged myself up the hill to the summit and was rewarded with a view of the prize – Bear Lake.
It was 7 miles to the finish, I looked at my watch… 8:30am, I could try and run and get in under 28 hours, or walk for 28.5, same buckle – less effort, walking wins. The descent was deceptively tough though and several people passed me on the way down, obviously eager to go sub-28. Towards the bottom of the hill I suddenly got a shooting pain in my left foot – it felt like a blister, this further reduced me to a hobble. To add insult to injury, it appeared that there was another little hill to go and then a couple of miles on road to the finish.
I was in agony and hobbled down towards the finish, in that last stretch – probably 15-20 people passed me, the only people to have overtaken me since 60 miles. But I didn’t care – I was going to finish The Bear, and do it under 30 hours to join the Grizzly club.
And so I finished, shook the Race Director, Leyland Barker’s hand and then cheekily asked him to take a photo of me under the finish gantry.
There was no sign of Tim or Traviss at the finish line, I’d booked a room in a local lodge to clean up and lie down at, so hobbled up there before coming back down at about 4pm to catch up with everyone, pick up my spoils and have some food at the BBQ.
Tim had dropped at 60 miles having not trained sufficiently and was having problems with the cold but was very philosophical about it, being a veteran of Leadville and Hardrock he certainly has the credentials. Apparently he saw me come into the 60-mile AS but was wrapped up by the fire and didn’t want to distract me. We saw Traviss come in at around 35 hours, happy and suitably exhausted from the experience.
There was a great atmosphere at the post-race area, unlike most UK races where people drift off, here everyone stuck around cheering on the runners as they came in, right up to the 36-hour cut off time. Our little group of Brits decided that he Yanks need some new motivational shout-outs as “Good Job” and “Nice Job” gets old after a while!
And so, that was The Bear… And what an adventure it was too. It has totally opened my eyes to the whole US mountain running scene, I’ve qualified for Hardrock 100 which absolutely everyone says is a must-do so I guess I’ll have to enter the lottery for that.
But for now, I hope you enjoyed the read – I’m off to Las Vegas!