The IMTUF 100 is a spectacular, well-organized ultra through some of the most scenic trails in all of Idaho. My cousin, Ben Blessing and his friend Jeremy Humphrey (a couple of solid ultra runners themselves, Ben, having completed the 135 miles of Badwater in 2011 and Jeremy winning Cascade Crest 100 in 2011!) put on this epic event in the Salmon River Mountains just outside the beautiful resort town of McCall, Idaho.
Having paced my friend Rachael last year for 62 miles on the IMTUF course, I was eager to come back and experience the beauty and difficulty of this mountain ultra once more. So when my running buddy Derek happened to mention that he still had not found a pacer it didn’t take long for me to start jumping up and down, waving my hand in the air and saying, “OOooooohhh Ohhhhhh Mr Kotter Mr Kotter, Pick MEEEEEEE!!” (Ok, maybe it didn’t go QUITE like that, but it is how I like to remember it.)
Being the “slow girl” who loves to train with the “fast boys” it has always been my secret wish to actually get to pace one of THEM and see what it’s like from their perspective in races for a change. Many a times on a training run when I’m dying and wheezing trying to catch up to them as they casually chit chat about the day and glide effortlessly like gazelles up yet another steep mountainside, I’ve wondered what it would be like to see one of them really TIRED for a change, while “I” had the energy!” So this was a gig I really wanted to land!!
I always say when you’re too poor to cough up the entry fee, what better way to get a ticket to the party than to volunteer, crew or pace?!! You still get to get in on all the FUN that way, hang out with some cool people and have great memories to look back at when it’s over and log some serious miles on the legs! Win/win! So, after a few weeks of Derek probably not being able to find anyone better, I totally scored the job. I thought “Woo hoo! I get to hang with the COOL KIDS!!!! It was quite a moment of pride for my back-of-the pack kind!” I thought of making billboards to advertise my good fortune, but figured I should just focus, rest up and do my best not to screw this thing up for myself or all other slow people who want to pace fast people out there in the future!
Since the course was done in reverse this time (to avoid some of the most gut-busting climbs being in the tail end of the race) and a few weeks earlier (to avoid the crazy 5 degree temperatures that made for some epic frozen mustache and beard photos at last year’s event) I was eager to see the part of the course I had not had the opportunity to test out last year in my pacing duties! Since Derek is a much faster runner than I am, I also only agreed to pace for the final 50k which seemed like a pretty smart plan so that I could stay strong and help him push through the night and the final stretch.
I met up with Derek’s beautiful wife, Becky on Friday afternoon and got to enjoy spending some fun time with her and their two cute sons, Sedrick (8) and Cody (6) on the long, windy roads up to McCall from Eagle. Ultra runner families are some of the most supportive in the world and are capable of juggling a great deal to be a source of encouragement and support to the runner in their lives with the addiction to this crazy sport (that takes up so much of our free time and our family’s free time!) Becky was no different! She shared that she’d already volunteered at one of her children’s schools that day for “popcorn day”, then played piano at a funeral and gotten in a workout before packing up herself and the kids for the 3 hour drive to McCall to crew and support Derek! When Sedrick started to moan from the backseat about an hour and a half into the trip that his tummy was hurting, she stayed calm and cool, even when the carsickness overtook him (and covered much of the back seat on the drive up!) She patiently and calmly cleaned him and the seat right up, hugged him and we were on our way again to the race. I have always liked Becky, but my admiration of her rose to a whole new level after this trip!
I had heard Derek speak fondly of his first 100 miler – the Bear – just 11 months ago, where he was feeling awful in the first half until he got to see his wife, kids and parents at about the midpoint of that race. The best part of the story is how Derek’s Dad, “Pops” had whipped up the world’s best dutch oven chicken pot pie and how Derek downed that meal and it brought him back to life so that he ran the second half of the race feeling like his legs were fresh and fast all the way to the finish! The IMTUF 100 would be Derek’s 4th 100 miler in less than a year – and once again, his loving family (and the famous chicken pot pie) would be there and I was excited to see how things would play out for him.
We arrived a bit after 5:30 pm at the Lake Fork Trail Head (mile 44 into the race) to crew. Derek wasn’t expecting to see any of us until mile 55, but since we had to pass this aid station on our way to Snowslide anyways, it seemed like a great chance to surprise him! We met up with Derek’s dad and his step mom here (all ready with the delicious pot pie and an extra pot with cobbler as well!) We arrived early enough we were able to cheer on some of the front runners (and several of my fellow Boise Trail Runner pals) which was fun! This was also my first sighting of Ann Trason and she came in looking strong. I sat back and respectfully watched from a distance one of the legends of ultra running proving she still had it at age 54 (the following day I would learn was her birthday and she’d turn 55 while out in the mountains doing what she devoted so much of her life and talents to!)
Derek came running down the dirt road towards the aid station and his 8 year old son ran out to him with a boisterous, “DADDDYYYYY!!!!!!!!!” and the joy on each of their faces made me extra happy that we’d showed up at this aid station to surprise him. There’s something magical and wonderful about seeing those you love that can rejuvenate your spirit during a tough ultra. Derek looked worn. We sat him down and went to work, filling up his water bottles and pack, getting some Gatorade into him and getting him a helping of his Pop’s famous chicken pot pie.
Word quickly got around the camp that this special meal was being served and runners and pacers came around with hopeful faces like beggars, hoping for some too – and Derek’s dad happily and generously obliged – feeding many. Sounds of “Mmm – this is amazing!” “It’s delicious!!” could be heard round the camp. Most surprising was when our vegetarian runner friend Christine asked for some as well! (Since she would go on to be the first place woman at the race, we all had to wonder if there wasn’t some super top secret ingredient for all who dined on this special meal!) Pop’s cooking apparently works magic for all who indulge!
As we were updated by Derek on the events earlier in the race, we found he and a few others had gotten off course after the first aid station. A pickup truck had been parked right where a crucial trail marker sign was and they’d ran 4-5 extra miles before getting back on course. Derek said, “I was last place by the 2nd aid station and have had to work my way back up from the bottom!” He also shared that he’d ran out of water and had a rough 3 mile patch where he struggled until he could get to the next aid station and get more to drink. We made sure to hydrate him well, feed him and let him rest up before sending him off back onto the trail to run another 60 miles! And it was time well spent! He was starting to come back to life as he left the aid station and joined up with Christine and her pacer (and our good buddy) Ryan, which seemed to really boost his mood, too.
We then jumped in the pickup and headed up to the Snowslide Trail Head (mile 55.4 of the race closer to mile 60 for Derek who was on the scenic tour!) At that aid station we were greeted by Becky’s brother, Jody, who would be Derek’s first pacer in the race, joining him for about 15 miles in the dark. The best part? Jody had never ran more than 12 miles and had never ran on trails. I could tell from the first meeting that Jody had a positive energy about him; a laid-back nice guy who was looking forward to getting a first-hand experience into Derek’s ultra marathoning world and I knew it would mean a lot to Derek to have him along for the journey.
We had some time to kill as we waited, which was fun. We got to see our friend Jayk Reynolds totally killing it as he came in on FIRE – holding a steady 3rd place in this difficult, technical 100 miler – even though this was only his first 100! Impressive! I leaned down as Jayk sat in a chair and asked him how he was doing and he still looked like he’d only been out for an easy 3 mile morning jog – there was still a sparkle and a freshness in his eyes, which told me everything I needed to know. I knew then that Jayk wouldn’t have a problem staying strong until the end! I was very inspired by his deep belief in his abilities, his inner drive and his talents.
When at about 9:57 pm I spotted a headlamp coming fast from the other side of the creek towards the aid station, I held my breath and watched, trying to see who it could be. When the figure stopped and did a heel click I yelled out, “It’s DEREK!” That’s Derek’s signature move and I was so jazzed to see my runner revived and running strong again! The pot pie had worked it’s magic! He splashed through the water and came tearing up the small hillside to the aid station. The mood was energetic and contagious! I helped Derek get his things sorted out, filled his water bottles and got him some food, while Jody got ready to jump in for pacing. Derek didn’t stay long. He left with Ryan, Christine and Jody and we knew they’d have another good stretch until I jumped in at mile 70 at Upper Payette Lake in a few short hours.
I said goodbye to Derek’s family and then took Jody’s car to the next aid station, driving slowly along the washboard dirt road in the mountains, hoping I wouldn’t get lost since we were far from civilization (it felt like) and my cell phone had no service. Thankfully, the directions from the IMTUF race manual were flawless (thank you, Jeremy!) and I got there in plenty of time to get something to eat and then lay down in the car for a short rest before my pacing duties kicked in. I noticed how spectacular the stars were (the vast number of them alone just astounds me when I’m so far from any distracting city lights or homes) out there as I laid in the car, eager to start running through the night.
At about 2:15 am, my pal Dennis was knocking on my car window telling me they were here!! I was so excited! They’d made really good time from the last station and were doing well! Once I got a look at Derek and saw he was looking well-fed, energetic and determined I knew it was going to be a fun night! I got him his water, some Gatorade, switched a couple of items from his drop back and then we were off — running with Christine and her pacer (and another of our friends) Jon. We settled in together for a mile or so, running through a small trail, hopping a guard rail and then running along the main road for a short bit until we were on a dirt road heading towards the single track trail again. We stayed together through this section and the energy was great from the two 100 milers! They’d taken great care of themselves and ran smart races and were benefiting from that – over 70 miles into the difficult course!
I looked down at my Garmin, that I’d hit “start” on the second I had reached Derek at the aid station and noted we had an average pace of 19:41 for the couple of miles we’d been together and decided it might be time to push Derek a little. I pulled ahead as we reached one of the biggest climbs of the course heading up the Victor Creek trail. It was very rocky, the grade was steep and there were lots of obstacles to try and trip you up (as well as a few water crossings and swamps to traipse through!) It was awesome! I put the gas on just a little to see how Derek would respond. He followed. I kept moving, nice and steady, looking back over my shoulder to see if the pace was comfortable. When he’d fall back a bit, I’d stop and wait. He was moving well. We kept going. This was the last time we saw Christine or Jon and soon we were ascending the mountain with only the glow of the stars twinkling above and the light from our headlamps to guide us. It was peaceful, still and I was thoroughly enjoying myself (and hoped Derek wasn’t feeling too tired from all the miles on his legs to be having some fun too!)
The cowbells and cheering from the Victor Creek aid station were a highlight of this stretch as we approached them after a long, hard climb! Derek was in a groove, so I sent him right through and I stopped to fill up my pack with plenty of water for the journey. Things were going well and we’d found our rhythm as pacer/runner and it felt good. We stopped for only a short bit when we reached a rock on the side of the trail that looked exactly like a comfortable bench right on top of the mountain, under all those glorious stars sometime after 3 am. Derek emptied some rocks from his shoes while I took in the view and then we were off again, feeling good. Most of the running I’ve done with Derek in the last couple of years has happened during the early morning “headlamp” hours so in many ways we settled into “just a regular morning training run” mode – except poor Derek had already traveled more than 80 miles by this point (counting his bonus miles!) I felt like we moved really well through the next stretch, having to climb over several fallen trees and keep upright on the crazy steep ascent with lots of loose rocks and dirt. We stayed steady but smart, not risking a fall this late in the race when he was doing so well. He was in 7th place when I jumped in with him and we didn’t want to lose ground.
After another mile, we rounded a corner, running well and spotted another racer sitting on a log on the side of the trail. I sat down next to him and asked him his name. He said he was Matt Hagen from Washington. We asked how he was doing and he said he was a bit worn down since he’d just marked and paced at Cascade Crest the previous week. I knew his reputation as a really solid runner and we asked if he’d like to jump in with us and run the next stretch. He said he wasn’t sure he was up for it, but I was happy to look back over my shoulder and see two headlamps following me a few minutes later. The guys were doing good! We kept moving well as the dawn of the new day started to settle all around us – the trees suddenly in silhouette against the ever-lightening gray sky. It was glorious!
Derek was in 6th place, Matt had dropped back after a mile or two and we were on our way to Willow Basket Junction – 83.1 miles into the course. Derek and I came in running strong with big smiles and Derek did his famous heel click! The dedicated volunteers – Vicky and Doug Trees, two locals and the others were out in the middle of what must have felt like nowhere with a nice fire and snacks offering aid to the tired runners! It was a delight to see their smiles and feel their energy! We reached them about 6:33 am. We’d made it about 13 miles through some of the most difficult terrain of the course in about 4 hours. We were doing well! We had some snacks, then Doug pointed us in the right direction and we were off again.
We found the next section very pleasant! It reminded me so much of running Big Horn with the single track trail high above the rushing water in sections with gorgeous forests on all sides. It was truly beautiful! In this section, we ditched our jackets into the packs and got settled in for some warmer weather running. It had gotten quite chilly just before the sun had risen, so it was a nice change as the sun settled into the sky and we started to warm up nicely.
I remember trying to tell Derek some jokes to pass the time during this (hilarious jokes like, Me: “Why did the chicken cross the playground?” Derek: “Why?” Me: “To get to the other SLIDE!” hahaha) and the poor guy was so tired by this point he’d said, “No jokes now, Christie. I just can’t.” That made me grin. Derek had paced me for 50 miles at the Antelope Island Buffalo Run in March (and told me quite a few corny jokes and done some pretty impressive Vera De Milo Jim Carrey impersonations to get me through) and I remember getting to a point where I could no longer carry on or listen to any conversation either. Derek was reaching this point. We kept moving, never walking for more than a 1/4 of a mile before we’d be running again. I was deeply impressed in this section with Derek’s determination and his ability to find strength in those legs after being on the trail for so long! It was inspiring! I remember telling him, “You ran the first 70 miles with your legs. You run the rest of this thing with your HEART! You can do it!”
We ran well in the early morning light, enjoying the new day and it occurred to me how surreal it would feel for me to see a 100 mile finisher crossing the finish line before DINNER (since I’m a back of the packer!) It was a light, fun thought and I thoroughly enjoyed thinking like that – but reminded myself that we still had several miles to go before that great moment and I (and Derek) still had work to do.
We picked up the pace as we came into Willow Basket Junction for the second time at mile 92.4 for the course (Derek was nearing the 100 mile mark on his legs.) We showed up at 9:05 am. The aid station workers quickly said, “You’re only 4 minutes behind two other runners who were together!” Derek and I looked at each other and just tore out of there. I saw an excitement in his eyes, a new reason to dig deep and push and it was a lot of fun to start running really strong again after so many miles. Within just a few minutes we saw Matthew Tock, a man with an impressive beard (who was doing his first 100) and Wayne Rancourt (a very experienced, strong local runner and good friend who had stayed with Matt the entire race.) It was such a highlight to get to say hi to these guys and see how they were doing. They were walking as we approached and we asked if they’d like to join in with us and run together. Matt said his legs were just too spent at this point (these guys had also done the bonus 5 mile section with Derek) and so we wished them well and headed on our way. Derek was now in 4th place.
He was leading on the uphills, pushing himself hard and saying to himself, things like, “Keep going! Dig deep!” It was truly interesting to me to see what a “fast boy” looks like towards the end of a 100 miler, how he behaves, the thoughts in his head (based solely on what he would mutter to himself while pushing when you could see that his body wanted him to rest instead!) All of it was fascinating. Some of the biggest differences I noted: He never once complained! NEVER! He stayed positive or kept quiet if he wasn’t feeling well, never giving voice or strength to the negativity than can overpower the mind in one of these ultras. He was steady. Our pace was similar at mile 70, 80, 90 and into the finish. He allowed himself to regularly take short walk/hike breaks up steep mountains or during the flatter sections to better ration his energy – but never allowed himself to take a “walk break” for more than 1/4 of a mile at a time!! Even if the run pace was slower, it was faster forward motion than if we’d taken longer walk stretches and that added up over the time we were together to get him across those miles at a faster pace! It was awesome! He ate regularly, drank regularly and used short term goals to get to the next aid station, up the next big climb, etc. It was a lot of fun seeing him use these mental games to challenge himself and keep himself motivated and moving forward.
Several of those things are the same weather you are at the front of the pack or the back of the pack – race smart, stay hydrated and fueled, have a positive mental attitude – but a few of them were different and those are the things I am gratefully taking away from this experience and will be applying to my own racing – mainly things like – [Don’t let walk breaks last longer than a short while – get back into the groove of running as soon and as often as possible and – Stay in the “no whining zone” throughout the race!! PUSH HARDER!! Don’t be so conservative or you’ll never know what you’re truly made of!] I also noted that Derek’s training coming into this race was exceptional! Better than ever! That too, is a huge consideration when planning out your goals for an ultra — train harder than ever and expect to race better than ever! It certainly worked well for Derek!
Derek started to fade a bit as we neared the final stretch. By about mile 100 on the course, we were doing 3 min of running and 1 min of walking intervals and it seemed to help. My Garmin showed about an 10:30 – 11:30 pace as we ran, which seemed about right for this late in the race. I cheered Derek on and told him how well he was doing and reminded him that his family would be waiting to see him do his famous “heel click” at the finish. He was hollow, tired, worn down and running on fumes in the final miles just continuing to move one foot in front of the other while no longer speaking. I know that look. I looked just like that when deep fatigue set in for me at my last 100 and Derek was pacing me. I stayed quiet and just ran in front of him, pulling him along and feeling thankful for the connection of ultra runners and enjoying the chance to be there for a friend who has really been there for me in my own racing. The final moments were winding down and I got a little bit emotional realizing how well Derek was doing right until the finish.
We came off the mountain finally and saw lots of flagging – some of it to the right, some of it right in front of us in the trees and some of it going left. We stood there for a few minutes unsure of which way to go — go through the trees? Was there a trail that way? Head left where the paper plate and ribbons were tied on a sign on the left? Go right where there were several ribbons along the roadway? We were standing on a main road. I saw an SUV coming our way and I started to flag them down. They stopped and I explained our predicament. “We’re in a 100 mile race. We’re looking for Burgdorf Hot Springs. Do you know what direction we need to go?” They said to head to the right. That we were about 2 miles away! We thanked them and excitedly started running that way. We saw a pink ribbon on the sign that said, “Burgdorf 2 miles up ahead”, so we turned and headed down the home stretch.
This was the section that stood out to me above all others because Derek was thoroughly spent, exhausted and drained – but instead of shuffling it in, he started to SPRINT like he was in a 5k! I glanced down at my Garmin and saw we were doing about a 7:20 pace and I panted out to Derek, “Can you hold this the rest of the way?” (fearing honestly that he would say, “Yes”, since I wasn’t sure “I” could hold that pace for 2 miles!) He gasped out, “We’ll see!!!!” Then 2/10 of a mile later, he thankfully slowed down to a walk again, both of us breathing heavily. I patted him on the back and said, “Someone smells the barn, eh?!” I know that feeling and it was fun to see him craving that finish line above every other possible feeling in his aching body. He wanted to be done. We walked until his breathing returned and then he did it again — sprinting like he was on fire, then walking, then sprinting, then walking. We were almost there and he was determined to drain every last ounce of his strength onto this course by giving it absolutely everything his body had to give!
Finally, he said, “It’s around the next bend. Run ahead. Tell my family I’m coming!!” I said, “I’m so proud of you, man! You DID IT!!! Don’t forget to HEEL CLICK!” and then I took off – heading into the final stretch, grinning from ear to ear. I could see people at the finish line peering down the lane at me with questioning faces (the first place female had not crossed yet) and I started yelling, “DEREK’S COMING!!!!!”
As soon as I got past the line, I pulled out my camera and got into a position to capture the moment. Derek’s two sons ran down the lane towards their daddy, yelling excitedly, “Daddy! Daddy!!!” That’s all it took, Derek started to run faster and faster heading towards his children, towards his beautiful wife and towards that beckoning finish line and the small crowd gathered around the finish and cheering him forward!
He picked up the pace to full tilt and then hit the finish line with one of the finest heel clicks I’ve ever witnessed! Everyone was cheering, high-fiving, slapping him on the back and congratulating him. His beautiful wife held out her arms and he fell into her embrace and they held one another, then he reached down to his wide-eyed sons, full of deep admiration for their super hero daddy and he held them too. It was an emotional and beautiful finish.
Derek finished the race in 29:24:43 in 4th place. It was an amazing day! Well done, my friend. Well done!