Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between

The Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run

If someone tells me that an experience is part heaven and
hell, I conjure images of unending purgatories, masochistic preferences, and
insane people who can’t decipher the difference between pain and pleasure. It
is perfect, then, that the motto for the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run, the
famous-and-challenging 100-mile running race through the rough yet aesthetically
exquisite Wasatch Mountains’ high country that
has taken place every September since 1980, is “One Hundred Miles of Heaven and
Hell.”

 

Let’s get a tangible grip on what the Wasatch 100, as this
race is commonly called, is about. First, grab your Utah state map and look for
Kaysville and Midway, the race’s starting and finishing points. Draw a squiggly
line northwest-to-southeast through the mountains in between those towns to
represent the race course. If you’re reading this with a view of the Wasatch,
look outside at their knife-y, shark-toothed tops and deep, dark valleys to
visualize the terrain through which the race passes.

 

Now, set an alarm that will go off in 36 hours, the maximum
amount of time runners have to complete the race, and don’t allow yourself to sleep
or even sit down until it chimes. Grab a hammer and a friend and have them beat
on your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves until the muscles cease to function.
Heat up a teakettle until it squeals, and pour hot water onto a couple spots of
your feet until your skin rises in juicy blisters. Then, stick your finger down
your throat and make yourself vomit. Running 100 miles often involves all of
these things.

The race begins at 5 am, when it’s still dark, so imagine
sunrise, maybe pink or coral-colored, brightening into a beautiful morning.
Think about the joy of outdoor play with your peers, people who think, act, and
just plain are like you. Remember how pretty fall colors are in the Wasatch and
imagine moving through stands of high-country aspens just beginning to yellow
out. Recall a good sunset you’ve recently seen and think about watching it after
a fulfilling day of hard work. Mix in a helping of family and friends, maybe a
moment of transcendent spirituality, and endless snacking on your favorite junk
foods. Then remember the silence and stars of the wilderness at night. If you
can imagine all this, then you begin to understand the heaven and hell of the
Wasatch 100.

 

History of the Wasatch 100

 

The Wasatch Front 100 was born out of a five-person adventure.
In 1980, Greg Rolins, Laurie StatonCarter, and
three other ultra-adventurous souls
set off into the mountains. 35:01:21 later,
Greg and Laurie together emerged the first two finishers of the ‘event,’ and
the only finishers that year. The next year, 1981, saw seven starters but no
finishers. Despite the second year’s challenges, the race continued growing,
and fast. By 1993, there were 122 starters and
82 finishers. And some 289 folks toed the line
at the 2012 Wasatch 100.

 

SLC-based ultrarunner Jay Aldous ran the Wasatch 100 in 1983 with what he
calls a twenty-something-year-old’s spontaneity. “A friend who wanted to run it and asked if I would do it
with him. I had run another 100-miler a couple of years earlier and he thought
I might, thus, be a smart companion. There wasn’t much collective knowledge on
running a 100 back then. In the early years there was no lottery and we just
signed up, allowing my participation to be both on a whim and casual. I believe
it took me 30-plus hours to finish. To even say I/we ran it, much less raced
it, would be kind.”

 

People like Greg, Laurie, and
Jay who undertake these events are called ultrarunners, folks who run and race
distances of more than a marathon. Ultramarathon races range from 50
kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, 100 miles, and even more in length. But
the grand pop of ultramarathons will always be the 100-miler. There’s a certain
je ne sais quois about this distance and its inherent difficulties (well
articulated earlier in this article). Many 100-mile races have only a 50 or 60
percent finisher’s rate. That is, 100-milers are so difficult that a bunch of
people can’t make it to the finish in the maximum allowable time or they give
up trying.

And this kind of idiocy (I’m a tried-and-true ultrarunner, as
idiotic as they come. I can say this, I think.) is only growing in popularity. UltraRunning magazine, the longstanding purveyor
of this niche sport’s print news, reports that 2008 saw 30,789 ultramarathon
race finishes. And, just four years later in 2012, the magazine estimated that
60,000 ultra finishes happened. Despite of this four-year doubling, I
think we’re still on the steep end of the expansion curve.

 

Rick Gates: The Craziest of All

 

If running the Wasatch 100 is masochistic at best and insane
at worst, then the logic of Rick Gate’s approach to the race is the craziest of
all. This 56-year-old Snowbird ski patroller has run the race 28 times—more than anyone else—and he
intends to do it again this year.

 

“What can I say? It’s basically my favorite weekend of the
year,” says Gates when I ask him why he’s done this race so many dang times. “I
just love the course. I know every inch of it and I still love it. I’ve made so
many friends through it that race weekend is like a family reunion. My wife loves
the vibe, too. Win-win, I’d say.”

 

I ask Rick to take me back to his first jaunt at the Wasatch
100, back when only a few yahoos did stuff like this. “1984 was my first year.
There were 51 starters and 24 finishers. I had no idea what was I was doing,
but I kind of embraced and lived that. At mile 35, my support crew met me and
gave me a couple McDonalds hamburgers. At just over half way, near the Mountain
Dell Golf Course, I ate half a pepperoni pizza.” Rick laughs at himself, and
then continues, “Well, I still eat that crap when I run today, but it seemed
strange for the first time then. I ended up finishing fourth. I was just a kid.
I called up my dad and told him about it. He said he was glad I got that out of
my system. I had to tell him that I kind of liked it and would probably do it
again.”

Not only did Rick do the Wasatch 100 again, but he also dove
fully into the ultramarathon community by running and racing all over the
world, including in Europe. After racing the Wasatch 100 for the first time,
Rick took two years off to run another 100-miler in Colorado called the
Leadville 100 and to act as pacer and crew to a friend running Wasatch. He
started back at the race again in 1987 and hasn’t looked back, finishing the
race every year since. “I’ve got this streak going now. I’ll keep going as long
as my body let’s me.”

 

Rick’s ultrarunning is a family endeavor. “My son has a
Wasatch streak of sorts going, too. I carried him across the finish line when
he was two weeks old. Then he crossed the finish with me every year for 18
years until he went off to college. He’s coming back to finish with me again
this year.” And Rick’s wife, Meg, loves the Wasatch 100 about as much as he
does. “I watch Rick run this race and all I see on his face is joy. How can I
not support that? I love being his crew. In the old days, it was just me and
our dogs chasing him around the hills with food and drink. Now I see all my
friends at the aid stations. It’s a roving party. Rick’s still the same guy I
married. Doing things like this keeps him real, genuine.” I think it’s fair to
say that this whole family is a little nutter.

 

The Wasatch 100, Fast

 

For all the folks who tackle the Wasatch 100 beast each
year, there have always been some fast folks out there pushing boundaries with their
balls-out speed. While the race imposes a 36-hour time limit for completing the
race, the man to tackle the course fastest is Colorado’s Geoff Roes, age 37. In 2009, Geoff ran 18:30:55 and
California’s Ann Trason is the fastest woman to cover the distance. In 1998,
she ran the Wasatch 100 in 22:27:10.

 

Even though he moves fast, Geoff says he’s out on the course
for pretty much the same reasons as Rick and the rest of the annual race posse.
“The best part of the
race is its ‘empty’ parts.” Geoff elaborates, “Even though the entire route is
within a short distance of the major population corridor of northern Utah, it feels
remote in many places. And the most challenging terrain of the race is the last
25 miles. This would be an easier race if it were run in the opposite
direction. But I prefer the way it’s run, the harder way.”

 

In
addition to the race route, Geoff agrees with Rick on the race’s vibe. “Without
question, this is one of the classic 100-milers. And it’s easily one of the
most enjoyable ones I’ve been a part of. There is so much about this race that
makes it a great event: a point-to-point course, extremely challenging terrain,
remoteness, very good organization, and a comfortable, laid-back feel.” Yes,
Geoff, too, seems nonplussed by the running 100 miles part of these
shenanigans.

 

Last
year’s ladies’ champion, Emily Judd, a 31-year-old public defender from
Whitefish, Montana, delivers high praise to the dozens of volunteers who make
the race happen. “The volunteers are a well-oiled machine. They got me in and
out of the aid stations fast and even had kind words for me along the way.”

 

When
I ask Emily about her experience at Wasatch, her answer seems almost exactly
half heaven, half hell. “My low point was just after the Brighton aid station
at mile 78. It was past bedtime. Laying down to sleep on the side of the trail
seemed much easier than running 20 more miles.” She continues, “I knew that
moment would pass, though, and I had my boyfriend there as pacer providing
gentle encouragement.”

On
the heaven side of things, “The run and the mountains aren’t the only part of
the race. It’s the people who make the race what it is.” Emily elaborates, “I
had my family there to crew me. In the early miles, I chatted with other
runners. I had two pacers, and they chatted with and pushed me for the race’s
second half. And I’ll never forget my parents being at the finish.”

 

The
Modern Wasatch 100

 

The
Wasatch 100 is now 34 years old and still going strong. Every year, some more
folks try their hand at the feistiest heavens and hells that Utah can deliver.
So popular is the race now that an entrance lottery is held. And last year’s
edition saw the most annual finishers ever for this race: 213 of the race’s 289
starters crossed the line.

 

Along
with all of these entrants come their crew, fans, and even a teensy bit of
media. The aid stations are more like cheerful block parties than the random,
unmarked places that Meg remembers chasing Rick around in the early days. And
the finish line is an even bigger get together, as everyone involved with the
race eventually conglomerates to camp, re-hash the race, laugh, and generally
be merry about their weekend in the mountains. But don’t get me wrong. The
finish line is still a little like a disaster zone, with successful runners
stumbling around on peg legs, destroyed foot flesh, and the fatigue of having
been awake and moving for most of a weekend.

 

Heaven,
hell, purgatory, insanity, abundant joy, unending enthusiasm, and an
appreciation for Utah’s wilds: there are a million different but still entirely
appropriate descriptors for the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run.

 

The Wasatch 100 in Numbers

 

The race:

-Has 26,882 feet of climbing and 26,131 feet of descending;

-Travels terrain between 4,880 and 10,450 feet altitude;

-Has
high temperatures in the 80’s Fahrenheit and lows in the 30’s; and

-Supports
runners with 17 aid stations along the way.

Leave a Reply