Sunday, January 24, 2016

Better late than never: A 2014 I.M.T.U.F. Race Report

I am not a great runner by any means.  I consider myself a kind of “everyman” runner when it comes to ultras.  In a 100-miler or 100k I am usually a solid mid to back of the pack guy.  I’ve completed 11 other 100-milers including two finishes at Leadville, two at Wasatch and one at Bighorn, well, now two at Bighorn since I’m coming back to this race report more than a year after starting it.  I have also completed the Grand Slam.  I say this up from not to try and impress anyone but to provide a good context for what I’m about to say.  I.M.T.U.F. is the single hardest race I have ever done.  It is even harder than running Wasatch with Western States, Vermont and Leadville in your legs.

I ran I.M.T.U.F. in the clockwise direction meaning that we got all the sweet, easy running done in the first 20 miles and the worst of the course was all piled in to the end.  Intuitively you might think that it would be better to get the tough stuff out of the way first and then finish up with the easier stuff but I’m not so sure about that.  The hard stuff is simply going to hand you your ass and I can’t imagine enjoying the good stuff late in the race.  I imagine you would just be grateful and because you don’t have to focus on every footstep you would have time to really dwell on how hard the rest of the course was.  I think it’s far better to run in blissful denial as if you have nothing at all to fear.

Jeremy, the race director, said a couple things during the briefing that really resonated with me out on the course.  When talking about the Crestline section he said that several trails around the country have a “Friends of” group like the Friends of the Western States Trail.  He said “Nobody gives a crap about these trails.”  That was funny but once you are out there you know what he’s talking about. Most of the trails in this section, and elsewhere, appear to have been built by someone like the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 30’s and then forgotten.

There are some sweet sections on the course for sure.  In the clockwise direction pretty much the whole first 20 miles is pretty sweet and then the next five or so after that isn’t bad either.  However, in my mind there are five types of trail conditions that most runners don’t really like.  1) Overly rocky trails, 2) trails that are narrow and deeply rutted, 3) trails that have deep moon dust, 4) trails with a lot of roots and 5) trails with a lot of loose sticks and chunks of wood littering them.

Any one of these trail conditions can range from annoying to dangerous but it’s not uncommon to run into them to greater or lesser degrees on various trails.  However, you usually hit a rocky section or you hit a section with a lot of moon dust or you hit a root section, maybe all in the same race.  You may even run a race where one of these conditions predominate through the entire course.  The trails at IMTUF stand out because it is quite common to have all five of these conditions going on at the same time for miles on end.  The course as a whole is very scenic when you can look up and look around.  However, the actual trail tread is something that I came to know as “more of IMTUF’s shit trails.”  In fact, there was a section that was maybe only a quarter mile but it was so remote and choked with debris that the race director had to call in smoke jumpers to parachute in and clear the trail.  Running through that section was pretty cool though.  The trail was freshly repaired and there was a wall of logs and branches piled three to seven or eight feet high on either side.  It was like running through a rough hewn wooden tunnel.

I found much of this stuff unrunnable.  I could jog some of it but actual running was often out of the question, especially if the trail was heading downhill.  This is in part because I have become a more cautions downhill runner since I developed a knee injury that doesn’t prevent me from running but can cause me some serious issues if Im not careful, but a lot of it also had to do with the trail conditions.  However, the runners from Idaho seemed to be able to take advantage of the downhill sections well enough so it can obviously be done you just have to be able to practice on that kind of a crappy trail.

The other thing he said a few times is that the race has a rhythm and that if we had a pacer we shouldn’t completely rely on them to keep us on the course because they would not understand the course’s rhythm because they had not run as much of it as we had.  As near as I can tell the “rhythm” of the course is similar to the rhythm of a sadistic parent who sweetly sings you a lullaby and as you begin to doze they blast you with an air horn.

And now here I am more than a year later wishing I would have went ahead and finished that last thought because I’m not entirely sure what I was getting ready to say.  However, along the lines of surprise misery here is what I do recall apart from the horrible condition of many of the trails.  There were a few sections that you were faced with a sudden and very steep climbs.  At least one I remember had me on all fours and that took place deep at night.  The other thing that was alternately pleasant and unpleasant was the spacing of the aid stations.  I don’t think it was just my perception but the mileage between aid stations was not very exact, some were closer than advertised and some were farther away.

The worst time was towards the end of the race when I thought I was hitting the mile 93 mile aid station in a 100 mile race, I was actually at mile 83 or 87.  It also happened that when I got to the last aid station, which was Cloochman Saddle, maybe that’s spelled wrong, I though it was mile 97 in a 100 mile race and it really turned out to be more like 93 in about a 105 mile race.  The worst part of that is that for some reason I was thinking “saddle is in the name of the aid station, that means that it’s all downhill from there.”  Don’t ask me why I thought that, other than going back from whence you came it’s actually more likely that you will continue heading up, which is exactly what we did.

This was particularly distressing for me because I was now unsure how much further I had to go and I was pressing up against the course cutoff, though it turns out not as badly as I imagined.  Anyway, I was feeling kind of desperate and running uphill as hard as I could.  It wasn’t all that steep but it was long and just kept going up and up and up for what felt like several miles.  I’m pretty sure it was at least three.  When I finally got to a section of trail that flattened out two people looking pretty fresh came running towards me.  They were the sweeps that were sent from the finish line to the last aid station to then turn around and start picking off slow-pokes.  That freaked me out and so I tried again to pick up the pace a little.

The sweeps told me not to worry because there was a big downhill ahead but when I got there it was very steep, deeply rutted and moon dust filed so not exactly fast, at least not in my condition.  The final couple miles did mellow out a lot and I was able to do some easy walk-jogging.  I crossed the finish line in my slowest time ever, 34:52 in a 36 hour race.  There was beer and barbecue at the finish line and I actually was feeling pretty good.

So yeah, IMTUF is TUF for sure but here’s the thing about ultra running, or at least the people like me who do it.  More than a year later here’s what I remember most vividly.  Somewhere near the beginning of the race, when I was still running and the trails were still mellow, there was a couple who had backpacked their aid station into the wilderness, it was the only way to get it there.  They had packed the stuff in and sent up a little camp complete with Buddhist prayer flags hanging from the trees.  The aid was neatly laid out on a slab of wood, it was cool, they were kind of quiet but friendly.

Somewhere around two in the morning I was descending down into a ravine and I could hear a stream running through it.  When I got to the bottom of that ravine I saw a campfire.  I picked my way across the stream and there was a campfire with three huge goats laying nearby and an older couple sitting on some logs.  They had packed their aid station in on goats.  The man asked if I wanted some oatmeal and the woman asked if she could make me some coffee, which she did over the fire…fresh.  It was magnificent.  There were also a couple guys that had hauled their aid station in on ATVs, just a couple guys, in the woods, tailgating with strangers in the night.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that despite the difficulty of the race it’s really not the difficulty that has stayed with me.  I know it was a hard race, I have a vague recollection of the craziness of the trails but even that is really more my remembering talking about the trails.  What has stayed with me was the coolness factor, the hard work the people had put into the race, the personal touches that only IMTUF has, the remoteness and the beauty…and yes, there are also some pretty impressive burn scars on the course as well but if you run in the west and southwest you are going to hit that.

I have even recently thought of going back, which is a little unusual because I tend not to repeat races unless I have a really good reason.  I repeated Leadville and Wasatch to complete the slam and I returned to Bighorn because Misty still needed to get Wyoming in our quest for 50 states but IMTUF, no real reason to go back other than, it’s just kind of a cool race.  I think it’s probably what ultra running was in the very early days of the sport when almost nobody did them.

I have started making videos of my recent races and discovered that I had a lot of pictures of the first day of IMTUF as well as a couple finish pics so without further ado, enjoy.

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