Trail running’s holy grail celebrates 100 years
Illustration by Jeremy Collins
It is March. It is midnight. Snow still covers the trails of Mount Hiei, which lies just northeast of the ancient city of Kyoto, in central Japan. Kakudo Suzuki, an aspiring Japanese Buddhist spiritual athlete or gyoja, attends an hour-long service in the Buddha Hall. He sips a bowl of miso soup and chews on a couple of rice balls. Then he dresses. His outfit is pure white—the color of death—the same thins he would be dressed in at his own funeral. It is cotton and consists of a short kimono undershirt, pants, hand and leg covers, a long outer robe and a priest’s outer vestment.
He wraps a white “cord of death,” around his waist with a sheathed knife tucked inside. Tendai Buddhist tradition dictates that if Kakudo does not complete his prescribed marathon runs and walks, and all the accompanying tasks, he must take his own life by either hanging or disemboweling himself. He also carries a small bag that holds his secret holy book, which will guide him on his journey and help him remember the 250 prayer stops to make along his 18-mile trip around Mount Hiei. Some of those stops will be to honor monks of the past who did not make it and died by suicide. Kakudo also carries candles, matches, a small bag of food offerings to the deities, and a rosary. Mount Hiei has five main peaks, the highest being O-bie-dake at 2769 feet. It is a lush landscape of rain, high humidity and winter snows. The mountain is located in temperate western Japan, but the combination of relatively high altitude, trees that block out the sunlight and frigid air masses that move in from Siberia turns Mount Hiei into the “frozen peak” during the cold months. The mountain is a wildlife preserve full of forest animals — fox, rabbit, deer, badger, bear, boar and the famous Hiei monkey.
Kakudo puts a pair of handmade straw sandals on his bare feet, and carries a straw raincoat and paper lantern. In stormy weather, the rain destroys the sandals in a couple of hours, extinguishes the lanterns, washes out the routes and soaks the spiritual trail runner to the bone.
Kakudo is one of the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, and this will be only the first of 100 successive nights that he will get up at midnight, attend the service and start his marathon run/walk (kaihogyo) around Mount Hiei, completing the route between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. He will then attend an hour-long service, followed by bathing and the midday meal. After lunch, Kakudo will rest, then attend to temple chores. The last meal is taken around 6 p.m., and Kakudo gets to sleep around 8 or 9. The only variation in the 100-day ordeal will be a special 33-mile run through Kyoto, robbing him of one night’s sleep altogether.
During the route, Kakudo will sit down only once—beneath a giant sacred cedar for two minutes—to pray for the protection of the imperial family. After a first run with a master, Kakudo will be on his own. He may suffer cuts, sprains, stone bruises and punctures to his feet and ankles. He may run a fever, experience back and hip pain, develop hemorrhoids and diarrhea, suffer from frostbite dehydration and hunger. But by about the 30th day, according to the predecessors’ accounts, his discomfort will lessen as his body adapts to the pain and strain. By the 70th day he is run/walking with a smooth gait, head and shoulders erect, back straight, nose and navel aligned. He will continually chant mantras to the god Fudo Myo-o. His spiritual goal is to become completely absorbed in the mountain and its surroundings, so that the pain and discomfort of the physical ritual will not be noticed, or at least be ignored. Kakudo hopes to achieve a state of Enlightenment—the pure spiritual joy of feeling one with the universe. As rugged as it appears, however, this test is merely a warmup in the ultimate spiritual quest of the Marathon Monks—the complete process entails seven more years and becomes progressively and unfathomably more difficult.
It is not clear exactly how these spiritual mountain marathons began, but records show that Chinese and Indian Buddhist texts of the eighth century stated that, “Mountain pilgrimages on sacred peaks is the best of practices.” From about 830 to 1130, pilgrimages took place to mounts Hira, Kimpu and Hiei. Kaihogyo, as the rituals are known today, evolved from 1310 to present.
Since 1885, 46 marathon monks have completed the 1,000-day journey—an ordeal that is an option for the gyoja who passes the 100-day test. Two monks completed two full terms; another died by suicide on his 2,500th day, trying to complete three terms. The majority of monks who complete these odysseys have been in their 30s. The oldest completed his 2,000th day when he was 61 years old. The number of monks who actually died or committed suicide along the path is not known, but the route on Mount Hiei is lined with many unmarked gyoja graves.
When he finishes the 100 days, Kakudo can petition Hiei Headquarters to be allowed to undertake the 1,000-day spiritual challenge (sennichi kaihogyo). If this petition is accepted, he must free himself from all family ties and observe a seven-year retreat on Mount Hiei. Kakudo will then commit himself to 900 more marathons over a seven-year period. The first 300 are 18- to 25-mile runs undertaken 100 days in a row, from the end of March to mid-October over three years. Starting in the fourth year, Kakudo will be allowed to wear socks with the sandals. During the fourth and fifth years, he will run 200 consecutive marathons each year and will be allowed to carry a walking stick. At the completion of the 700th marathon, Kakudo will face the greatest trial of all, called doiri—seven and a half days without food, water or sleep, sitting in an upright position and chanting mantras day and night. If he lives through this trial, which brings him to the brink of death and therefore to the ultimate appreciation of life, he will have attained the Buddhist level of Saintly Master of the Severe Practice (ogyoman jari).
Doiri begins several weeks prior to the actual fast. Kakudo will taper down his food and water intake to prepare himself for this near-death experience, eating simple meals of noodles, potatoes and soup up to the time of his fast. But hunger is the least of the suffering. Thirst, lack of sleep and the agony of sitting upright are much greater challenges. Working in 24-hour shifts, two fellow monks will attend to make sure ￼Kakudo stays erect and awake. By the fifth day, Kakudo will be so dehydrated, he will taste blood. He will be able to rinse his mouth out but cannot swallow any water. Defecation stops by the third or fourth day, but urination continues—if ever so slightly—right up to the end. Kakudo’s only respite from the sitting position will be the 2 a.m. trip to the holy well to draw water and offer it to Fudo Myo-o—the principal godhead the marathon monks come to embody. The principle of the Fudo Myo-o is that you must let nothing deter you from the appointed task. It takes Kakudo about 15 minutes to walk to the well on the first night. On the last day, the trip will take him over an hour, aided by his fellow monks. Doiri is no longer undertaken during the hot, humid summer months because dehydration causes permanent damage to the monks’ internal organs. Two monks perished this way. According to what predecessors have experienced, Kakudo may become so sensitive to life that he will feel himself absorbing mist through his pores, hear ashes falling from incense sticks and smell food being prepared miles away. He will feel transparent, and experience existence in a state of crystal clarity. He will lose one quarter of his body weight.
Following the “700 days of moving and the seven and a half days of stillness,” the next stage toward Enlightenment is the Sekisan Marathon (sekisan kugyo), which takes place the sixth year and consists of 100 consecutive days of the 37.5 mile run/walks that require 14 to 15 hours to complete. The seventh and final year, Kakudo will run two 100-day terms. The first 100 days—considered by some to be the ultimate athletic challenge—consists of a daily 52.5 mile run/walk through Kyoto. That’s two Olympic marathons a day—for 100 days in a row!
An attendant will carry a folding chair for Kakudo to sit on at traffic lights and other obstructions. He will have learned to catch a few seconds of sleep at these stops. A monk saying goes: “Ten minutes of sleep for a marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest.” Kakudo will actually get about two hours sleep in each 24 hours. While on his double marathons, he will bless followers along the route in Kyoto, pausing to touch their heads with his rosary. He will consume only 1450 calories a day. Physiologists say he should lose 15 to 20 pounds each month—but Kakudo will maintain his weight and stamina. How can he do this? Nobody knows for sure.
The final 100-day marathon test, during the seventh year, comes easily for Kakudo considering what he has been through. He will finish off his 1,000-day odyssey with 18-mile daily runs. When he takes his final steps up to the temple on Mount Hiei, he will have traveled on foot between 24,000 and 27,000 miles—a distance equal to one trip around the equator.
Finally, Kakudo will undertake the prayer, fast and fire ceremony (jumanmai diagoma). He will live on root vegetables, boiled pine needles, nuts and water. This fast dries him out, almost mummifying him, in order to keep him from perspiring excessively during the fire ceremony, when he will sit before a roaring blaze, casting patrons’ prayer sticks onto the flames and chanting 100,000 mantras to Fudo Myo-o. This fire ceremony is one day shorter than doiri and allows Kakudo some sitting-up sleep. Some monks have felt that this exercise is the greatest trial of all, greater than doiri.
How can the human body endure such trials? For 20 years, I worked as a trainer in Desert and Mountain Survival tactics for U.S. Military Special Warfare Groups (U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force and Special Forces), evaluating their physical and psychological adaptations to desert and mountain heat, cold, fatigue, hunger and sleep deprivation. The testing involved simulated worst-case scenarios where teams were separated from their gear and had to adapt to the rigors of the landscape and the weather with what they had in their pockets—with aggressor forces searching for them. That experience taught me that it was simply mental determination—athletic ability, size or physical strength attributes counted for little—that separated the “survivors” from the “non-survivors.” As Scott Jurek has said (see Trail Runner Issue 17): “When it comes down to it on race day, it’s a matter of who wants it more and who is ready to work for it.” Mental stamina is what determines top finishers.
What can trail runners learn from the Marathon Monks? We can try to emulate their positive attitudes toward adversity and awareness principles to push us into a more spiritual realm. That means opening our senses to the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding environment. It does not mean coming in first or running the longest. We can enjoy another dimension—one of pure joy in the moment. We don’t need the special blessings of the athletically gifted. We don’t need to feel we must compete or race the clock. It means we can simply enjoy the experience, and learn to flow with the natural world.
In his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, John Stevens sums up the greatest contributions of these spiritual adventurers: “The most admirable thing about the Hiei gyoja is their warmth, open-heartedness and humanity … Facing death over and over, the marathon monks become alive to each moment, full of gratitude, joy and grace … [They] have much to teach us: always aim for the ultimate, never look back, be mindful of others at all times and keep the mind forever set on the Way.”
>What is Tendai Buddhism?
Tendai Buddhism, practiced by the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, is a Buddhist sect that was started in the 8th century by a much-heralded and respected monk named Saicho, which means “Highest Clarity.” Saicho was a great synthesizer who brought together the teachings of Korea, China and Japan to form his own interpretations of Buddhist philosophy and form a “great unity with insignificant differences.” Saicho had many followers, and after his death, the modest monastery on Mount Hiei grew into one of the largest religious complexes in the world, a state within a state. Tendai Buddhism has endured over the centuries and its followers still gather together on Mount Hiei to practice its principles and meditations
Dave Ganci, the Rogue Senior, trains Navy and Army Special Warfare troops on desert survival. He describes himself as “a middle-aged desert rat whose skin is hard and wrinkled from too much time running, climbing and drinking cheap beer under the sun.”
This article originally appeared in our March 2003 issue.
This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Trail Runner.
Under Gordy Ainsleigh’s puffy, Charlton Heston-esque beard (a la the film Ten Commandments) hides a mouth glued in a perpetual smirk. It is partly mischievous and partly the grin of an omniscient sage who sees profound truths.
It also holds a speck of mystery. Says long-time friend and vice president of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Shannon Weil, “Gordy definitely lives in his own orbit.” And that is fitting, given Ainsleigh’s otherworldly claim to fame: over 20 years ago, he ran 100 miles of trails in one day, thereby planting the seed for today’s most extreme trail ultramarathons and, more specifically, the Western States 100.
At 58 years old, Ainsleigh is seasoned enough to remember the days before trail running’s current boom. Long before the days of specialized trail-running shoes, Scott Jurek’s 100-mile records, wicking clothing and energy gels, Ainsleigh ran beyond what anyone imagined possible.
“We are all here to do something,” he says, leaning over a campfire in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, “and I really believe I was put on this Earth to start trail ultrarunning.”
As flames flare up and lick his whiskers, Ainsleigh shares an outlandish tale that at first elicits chuckles. “At the end of the 19th century, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost above conspired to urge more people into the outdoors,” he explains with conviction, “so they bestowed upon humankind skiing and horseback riding.
“Years later they checked to see how their plan was working,” Ainsleigh says, “and realized humans were still screwing it up, and they needed to push people into the wilderness with nothing at all–just their feet.” That, says Ainsleigh, is why he was created.
“But the gods didn’t want me to be a happy kid,” he says, “so they broke up my parents and forced my mom and grandma to raise me alone.” As a result, Ainsleigh essentially had two mothers. Says Ainsleigh, “They made me wear long underwear into June, and it all came together to make me a separate and peculiar person.”
A young Gordy lived nearby his elementary school and, over lunch one day, his rebellious spirit blossomed and compelled him to run home. “It was a mile through the woods and across a creek,” he recalls, “My grandma was at home and she treated me like a hero.” He ran back to school, too.
Time warping forward into the early 1970s, Ainsleigh found himself back in the Sierra Nevada after detours through Vietnam and Santa Barbara, California. While at the University of California, he had bought a horse (“He threw me three times before I said, ‘I’ll buy him.’”) and learned of an event called the Tevis Mountain Cup, one of the country’s premier horseback riding competitions that traversed 100 miles of sweltering, rugged trail.
Ainsleigh and his steed, “Rebel,” galloped the race in 1971 and 1972, before the gods intervened once again. “After the 1972 Tevis Cup, one of the finest pieces of female fluff took my horse,” says Ainsleigh, sounding like a country music song. That misfortune, he explains, set into motion a string of events that delivered Ainsleigh to his destined day.
Ainsleigh got a new horse, but it went lame on a training run before the 1973 Tevis Cup, forcing him to sit out the event. Referring to the man who knowingly sold him the lame-horse lemon, Ainsleigh says, “That level of character decrepitude was necessary for what came next.”
1974 saw Ainsleigh horseless as the Tevis Cup approached. What did he do? He participated in the race sans equine.
Ainsleigh ran the 100-mile mountain course in under 24 hours—the time standard set for Tevis Cup racers—and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run was born. A more formal, inaugural Western States run didn’t take place until 1977, but Ainsleigh’s trot is widely recognized as the event’s first running.
One person who remembers Ainsleigh’s famous run is Jim Edwards, a retired veterinarian who monitored the health of the horses that day. “You had to be there to realize how nuts this whole thing was,” he says. “Here was this guy who could easily hop on a healthy horse, but he chose to run.”
Weil echoes Edwards’ awe of Ainsleigh’s exploits: “It was the landmark event that established the sport.”
Today, Ainsleigh still runs the Western States every year. He is a practicing chiropractor and lives in Meadow Vista, California, a short run from the Western States finish line in neighboring Auburn. He exudes the strong-mindedness and abundant energy of the long-haired kid he once was. “I never want to be sane,” he says, “’Still Crazy After All These Years’ should be my theme song.”
True to his word, Ainsleigh runs the trails with his hair flowing and his shirt off. He’s just slowed down a bit … but not much. “My friends keep expecting me to calm down–quit rock climbing, quit flirting and quit taking all those chances,” he says, “I guess I just don’t get it!”
Then Ainsleigh unpredictably turns poetic, quoting the flamboyant and boisterous Dylan Thomas: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The 2005 Western States 100 will take place on June 25. Look for Ainsleigh out on the unforgiving course, where he’ll attempt to complete the race for his 20th time.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2002 issue of Trail Runner.
In most sports you’re over the hill at 30. But in trail running, being in your 20s typically means getting soundly beaten by people who might be old enough to be your parents.
For years, seasoned runners in their mid 30s and early 40s have dominated the trail and ultra-running scene in North America. In the ultra-marathon distances especially, several components of high performance tend to improve with age—experience, mental toughness and perhaps even an appreciation for physical suffering.
Those are some of the reasons trail runners tend to peak much later than their road racing and trail running counterparts. But times are a changing and as trail running grows in popularity, a new wave of younger athletes is sending ripplies through the sprt.
“We are really excited to see the participation in this age range start to grow. We are beginning to see father-son teams enter races, “ says Greg Soderlund, race director of the Western States Endurance Run, the country’s premier 100-miler. “These ages are critical to the growth of the sport.”
Overall running participation numbers for Generation X (roughly the 24- to 35-year-old crowd) dwindled in the early 1990s, and today’s 12- to 24-year-olds, also known as the MTV generation, seem to be fixated on speed, aggression, adrenaline and instant gratification sports like snowboarding, skateboarding and mountain biking. Even the concept of finishing a road marathon as life’s defining moment is lost on most of these folks.
For years many have wondered if there would ever be a “next generation” of trail runners—Ben Hian’s mid-1990s greatness notwithstanding. Legends Matt Carpenter and Ann Trason, who were in their 20s when they started winning races, are still blasting away the field some 15 years later. But there are some hungry young athletes nipping at their heels.
In 2001, Carpenter, 37, again won the country’s oldest trail marathon on Colorado’s Pikes Peak, where only six of the top 30 male finishers were under 30 years old. But in the women’s race, sevond place went to a 20-year-old from the flatlands of Nebtaska who was racing her third Pikes Peak Marathon.
Also last summer 40-year-old Trason led the women at Western States, where just three of the top 30 finishers were under 30. Among that 10 percent, however, was a relative infant in the sport, Scott Jurek. He won the men’s race for the third time in a row at the tip, young age of 27.
It was only the second three-peat at Western States—the first was by Tim Twietmeyer, who was breathing down Jurke’s neck in 2001, finishing second at the age of 42 and setting a new master’s course record of 17:33. The youngsters may be making gains in trail racing, but the older generation isn’t exactly rolling over and playing dead.
Still, the veterans don’t appear resentful of their younger rivals. If anything, they lean in the other direction. “Everyone is out there rooting for each other. It’s so supportive,” says Katie Benson, 26, an up-and-coming ultra-runner who finished the Western States 100 for the first time last summer. “The older gnerations inspire me to keep running. I’ve been given plenty of hard-earned advice from the pros.”
One of those dispensing advice is David Horton, 52, a record-breaking ultra-runner, coach and college professor at Liberty University in Virginia. Horton, known for his unyielding passion and contagious enthusiasm, is still in the upper echelon of trail runners—he and Blake Wood became the second and third finishers of the Barkley 100 last spring—and is encouraging younger runners to set their sights high.
“We have gained credibility and are seen as a legitimate sport,” he says. “Young people understand what a positive sport trail running is. Thus more young people are trail running.”
Clark Zealand (9) gets some support from David Horton in the 2001 White River 50-miler near Enumclaw, Washington.
One of those young people is ultra-runner Clark Zealand, 28, who once trained under Horton and now is a track, trail and ultra coach himself.
“My father has been my greatest influence—he was a solid runner for many years,” he says. “But Dave Horton turned me into a trail runner.”
Zealand’s group of young trail runners are attracting other college students to the sport.
“I see runners get tough and become proactive in many areas of their lives,” he recounts. “As they leave college life, they developed a balance for the rest of their lives. But, like ultra-running, the balance does not come quickly or easily. It develops over time, and it requires a serious degree of inner strength.”
Notall of the 20-ish trail runners have come to the sport through older mentors. Many have taken a more roundabout route, approaching trails through other sports. Jurek and his brother, Greg, 22, are highly accomplished, competitive cross-country skiers who started trail running for overall conditioning—and became hooked. Rock climbing, mountaineering and mountain biking have also turned people on to trail running.
Other young trail phenoms are runners looking for a different experience. “Road and track runners simply burn out on the repetition and are looking for new, fun ways to compete,” says Ian Torrence. The 28-year-old from Seattle gave up road racing for trails and has become a top ultra-runner. In 1999 he won 12 ultra-marathons—more than anyone else that year.
When young trail runners talk about the inner strength they earn on the trails, their peers often don’t understand. “Demanding a workout from the mind and body is something only a handful of 20-year-olds are willing to do,” says Dr. Emily Cooper, who runs Preventive Solutions, a whole-body sports clinic in Seattle. “The ones we see are not a group that is easily deterred—they are super-positive and exude enthusiasm. They don’t come with a big ego saying, ‘I did an ultra.’ Their egos just aren’t in that kind of space.”
Those who are simply trying to boost their ego or improve their pick-up lines, choose an easier sport with more cachet. You can call yourself a rock climber while just dabbling in the sport, but you just can’t do that in ultra-running.
“Posing does not work,” Torrence agrees. “You are either hard-core and mentally with this or you just aren’t. There is no medium ground. This sport attracts the mentally tough and dedicated. Most are true to their word—work hard, and play hard.”
Emily Loman, a law student at the University of Colorado, knows all about hard work and hard play. In 1999 at the age of 23 she was the youngest finisher ever of the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, considered by many to be the toughest ultra-marathons in the country. The following year she bettered her time by more than six hours and last summer was one of the favorites for the women’s race but was derailed by stomach problems.
One of Loman’s favorite aspects of trail running is the diversity of the participants. “You are not segregated into a gender, age and speed group, so you are there with everyone,” she explains. It’s neat to be in a sport with lots of people from different backgrounds.”
You know, you’re sick, and now you’ve infected our children, said my wife the doctor. She was looking at our son, 5, and daughter, 4, who had dressed themselves for a run around the block with Daddy. Both were wearing fanny packs with water bottles and each clutched a pack of GU and a flashlight.
My wife’s diagnosis was not unfounded. I was halfway through my attempt at completing the Grand Slam, four 100-mile trail races done in one summer: Old Dominion in Virginia, Western States in Northern California, Leadville in Colorado and Wasatch Front in Utah. Endless hours of training, blisters, fatigue, nausea, sleep deprivation, muscle cramps, travel logistics and juggling work and family, all compressed into 13 weeks, 400 miles and 61,110 feet of climbing.
To most people, that’s about as enticing as bobbing for piranha in a bucket of muddy water. And all of this just for the sake of the Grand Slam trophy, an overdone bronze eagle statuette, known affectionately to ultramarathoners as Big Bird.
The roots of the Slam go back to 1974 when Gordon Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame for the 100-mile Tevis Cup equestrian race, and he went to Plan B. Disbelieving organizers allowed him to run the course, which he finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes. Thus the Western States Endurance Run was born as Ainsleigh established in one fell swoop that running 100 miles was possible, that a sub-24-hour finish was special and that a cowboy style belt buckle (the Tevis Cup award) was an excellent prize.
By 1983, the three other Grand Slam 100-milers were established, and it only took three more years for someone, namely Thomas Green, to run all four in one summer. Since 1988, the Vermont Trail 100 has been an allowable substitution for Old Dominion. Purists claim it’s not a true Slam, based on historical significance, but I think it is.
Having won the 1998 Western States entry lottery after two years of disappointment, I decided to try the Slam. I was in good company, too, with a record 36 other running fools in the hunt for Big Bird. The obvious question posed by my wife and friends was “Why?” I thought I knew, but didn’t truly understand myself until tackling 400 miles of trails, trials and tribulations.
Old Dominion: Miles 1-100
Fellow Slam wannabe Neil Hewitt and I decided on a DFL (dead f#@%ing last) start, followed by a methodical pace to ensure a sub-24-hour finish and our belt buckle prize. Rob Youngren showed up with purple hair and matching attire and fingernails, a theme he repeated throughout the Slam with a different hair color for each race.
Run through the Massanutten Mountains of northern Virginia, Old Dominion has a distinctly military flair. Distances are measured to the hundredth of a mile and pacers are strictly prohibited. In most other 100-milers, pacers accompany racers at later stages in the race, keeping them on track, offering company and perhaps staving off the inevitable dementia.
Several hours into the Old Dominion, we passed a pack of three Marines. A crisp “100” was shaved into the backs of their heads, inspiring me to ask Neil, “If they don’t finish, is it just castration or do they go for the firing squad?” Dementia was certainly setting in, but we battled it and finished together in 23:10:33, holding hands for a tie.
For the next few days, I had to get on all fours to go up the stairs, much to the delight of my kids, who thought I just wanted to play “horsey.” By two weeks out, I was running well and champing at the bit. “Bring on your damn Slam,” I thought with renewed vigor.
Photo by Paul B. Richer.
Western States: Miles 101-200
Of all the 100-milers, Western States Endruance Run draws the biggest crowds and the biggest names. Tim Twietmeier, Ann Trason, Mike Morton, Eric Clifton, Dan Barger and Janice Anderson are among the ultra stars who have made a name for themselves in this race. Youngren made himself noticed with bleached blond hair and painted toenails. I was only 19 days out from my last 100-miler, but felt surprisingly great.
Almost completely on trail, the course starts with a grueling 2,500-foot climb in four miles as it meanders toward Immigrant Pass. Then it heads through thick forests and a series of famous canyons with steep climbs, where temperatures usually top 110 degrees. This year, though, Miles 4 through 22 were run through deep snow – not the fluffy, powdery stuff, but the frozen, razor-sharp kind. Despite repeated falls, I suffered only scrapes and bruises.
At the Mile 34 medical check, I keeled to starboard trying to stand on the scale. Medical director Mike Ashcraft, wearing a silver, sub-24-hour Western States finisher’s buckle, stabilized me on the scale and declared I was five pounds down from my starting weight. “Son, you better sit for a while and re-hydrate,” he ordered. “A sub-24-hour finish just isn’t in your scope today. You need to relax and readjust your expectations. You’ll post a comfortable 27 ½-hour finish and live to tell about it.”
With all the hubris I could muster, I pointed to my bib number and said, “Remember runner 151. He’ll be collecting his silver buckle tomorrow.” After 55 minutes I was nibbling down pieces of fruit and sipping juice. I wanted to leave. Badly. But a wave of nausea shivered my timbers and I ran to the woods.
Watching Ashcraft approach, I though, “Damn! I can’t stop puking, and he’s going to pull me out.” To my surprise, he said, “Son, you should feel much better now that you’ve vomited. Do you want to try to leave?” I was out of there so fast I must have created a vacuum.
Needless to say, the night was awful. I found out that it is indeed possible to fall asleep while running. I was hallucinating, too. Or possibly dreaming – it was hard to tell. I battled in vain for 70 miles in the quest for the silver buckle. But Ashcraft was right; it wasn’t in the cards. I relaxed and finished within 15 minutes of his prediction. It was my worst 100-mile showing ever, yet I was thrilled (and very grateful) to still be in the running for the bronze bird.
Leadville: Miles 201-300
I lost my 100-mile virginity at Leadville in 1996, and for that reason it will always be a very special race for me. Plus, of the four Grand Slam courses, it was the only one I had run before. Billed as “The Race across the Sky,” the course starts and ends in downtown Leadville at 10,142 feet above sea level. Flatlanders get creamed by the altitude, and it didn’t take long before I regretted my career-inspired move from Colorado to Texas.
This old mining town is like few others – no show, no pretense. Virtually the entire community volunteers at the race, and race directors Merilee O’Neal and Ken Chlouber are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. The locals, many of whom have survived through the boom-and-bust saga of the local mining industry, are very supportive of the peculiar ways of endurance athletes.
Chlouber’s pre-race speech is legendary. Dressed head-to-toe in black clothing, his large frame and long, dark hair create an ominous figure. His enormous Leadville 10-time finisher’s buckle speaks volumes. A skilled orator and Colorado state senator, Chlouber works the crowd, thundering, “Are…You…Ready!” The racers go wild, knowing this signals the start of his speech, which is a combination of a pep rally, revival meeting and motivational course.
“Know this,” he begins. “This will hurt. This will be the most pain you have ever voluntarily undertaken. But if you drop out, the pain won’t stop for a year, until you can come back here and make amends. Then the signature line: “You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” The crowd leaves fired up, felling like they can conquer the world. A DNF would mean dishonor.
Pumped by that speech, great weather and familiarity of the course, I managed a 23:43 effort. Youngren ran in metallic greenish-blue hair and green fingernails, and will forever be known by my kids as “the guy with green hair.”
Photo by Paul B. Richer.
Wasatch: Miles 301-400
As we flew into Salt Lake City, I got an excellent view of the snow-covered mountains through which we would run. The course, famous for big mountain climbs, panoramic vistas and abundant big rocks, has been dubbed “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell.” Wanting to be sure things went smoothly, my sister offered to serve as crew, meeting me at various aid stations with dry clothes, hot food and general pampering.
At the start, about 20 of us Slam hopefuls were milling around, looking up the mountain into the darkness. “Big Bird is just 100 miles up that trail,” I told Neil with a degree of irony. Whether we would loft it in celebration or if it would peck our carcasses bloody somewhere up the trail was the only question that remained in this 400-mile odyssey.
Minutes later we were heading up a 4,000-foot climb. I stopped to look back for another runner and saw one of the most memorable views of my Grand Slam. Below, about a hundred runners were coming up the mountain in single file.
In the pre-dawn darkness, the lights of their headlamps looked like a string of live pearls unwinding, dancing and snaking up the mountain. Dust kicked up by the runners diffused the light, imparting a beautiful, muffled effect.
Within the first 18 miles, I had gotten lost, slipped off an embankment and smashed my jaw and left torso. I was doing everything in my power to blow this Grand Slam. Despite the lack of course knowledge and the Leadville finish just 19 days earlier, I had visions of a sub-24-hour Crimson Cheetah award dancing in my head. But by Mile 20 I was already an hour behind the necessary split times and went to Plan B, singing my theme for the race, a la Bobby McFerrin:
“When you’re closing in on the Slam,
About your time you don’t give a damn!
Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”
At the Mile 59 aid station, the temperature had plummeted into the 30s, leaving me shivering and depleted. My sister whipped out a folding chair and, miracle of miracles, a Thermos of steaming espresso and a burrito. “Yuppie ultra-runners of the world unite,” I whooped.
Later, in the wee hours, we heard the ominous howls of coyotes, perhaps with a taste for yuppie ultra-marathoners, tracking us. “You know what they say about coyotes not eating humans?” asked Teresa, my loyal pacer. “Well that only goes for the ones in urban areas. These guys aren’t quite as picky.”
The final stretch was surreal, but surprisingly painless. When I came around the last turn and ran under the banner, the clock read 27:59:50. A platinum-haired Youngredn and Neil, who had started DFL again, arrived shortly thereafter. I was trashed, but sky high on endorphins. The Grand Slam! I had thought the unthinkable, dreamed the impossible, and then gone and done it.
Afterwards, I asked Trason to autograph my racing bib. She had completed the Vermont Slam in a record cumulative time of 79:23:21, winning all four races and setting two course records along the way. Barger completed the traditional Slam in a record 78:46:01, having won Old Dominion and finished in the top 10 in all others. Dan’s record will stand for years, Ann’s for decades. My personal feat, though, will last a lifetime.
So why did I do it? I thought it was an absurdly difficult goal. But the Grand Slam was also a summer-long, transcontinental adventure during which I made many new, lasting friends, and rubbed shoulders with some of the legends of the sport.
But far beyond that, I traversed the inky mountain corridors of night, plunging down into the abyss more than once. I calmly surveyed the wreckage, determined what needed to be done, did it, and ran renewed into the dawning of a brilliant new day. I think about the Slam almost daily. It is a life lesson I will keep with me long after my physical abilities have dimmed.
Tyler Curiel may well be the fastest ultramarathon runner/infections disease and cancer vaccine researcher in Greater Dallas. He competes in the “I work for a living” category.
This article originally appeared in our inaugural issue, Winter 1999-2000.