by Thorbjorn Pederson
Letha’s Grand Slam run at Wasatch
September 6-7, 2003
Sitting in my aisle seat I did not have the best view, but as the plane was approaching Salt Lake City I could see the Wasatch Front mountain range. And sitting in an airplane they were supposed to look small. But not these mountains, which were rising high above Salt Lake City and appeared steep and scary for a novice ultra runner like me. I could immediately see that I was in front of something different than my experiences from Rocky Racoon and Old Dominion Memorial. As a lowlander from Houston I was in for a humbling experience.
At the hotel I met with the whole NTTR gang, all excited about the prospect of the events ahead of us over the next two days. There were the event’s actors Letha, Mark and Robert and the supporting actors Jay, Julie, Sarah and now myself Thorbjorn. As we walked to a restaurant for lunch, the mountains towering above the city’s skyline, kept reminding us what this was all about when Saturday morning 5 AM arrived: Conquer the mountains or become a victim yourself.
The Dallas runners were excited and upbeat, they had done this or this type of events before. However, I realized how much more I have to learn. This is a mountain event and certainly is more demanding that what I could ever imagine from my home spot near the flat rice fields on the west side of Houston.
During lunch Jay helped me calm down telling great stories from his Himalayan ultra experience. One who runs with eyes open will experience wonderful things right there as the miles pass by. And from one who has a great heart to cherish wonderful memories we will hear wonderful recaptures of the events. And Jay is one of such wonderful people.
After lunch some of us went through a last minute checking of our individual gear, other took time for shopping and some went for even more shopping. However, our runners relaxed and loaded for Saturdays event.
Saturday morning our runners took one of the shuttle busses to the start while we crew and pacer people rested a couple of extra hours before heading to the Francis Peak. This would be the first aid station we would meet our runners and as we pulled in for parking to get ourselves situated the first two leading runners flew through. I took particular notice how little time the ultimate winner, Karl Meltzer spent in the station. Basically none, as his bottles were filled on the fly he ran out with hands and pockets full of food.
Eventually, Robert came down the hill to the aid station for a quick refuel. He was starving as he had had no breakfast due to some misunderstandings of the morning logistics. Julie and I ran out of the station with him as we pealed banana after banana that went down quicker than they could be pealed. Out of bananas we left Robert to his own devices till we would see him again at the Big Mountain aid station.
But where were our Slammer and Wasatch guy from last year? While waiting we saw Carlos Cesar Ibarra and slammer Juan Galvan from Houston pass through and eventually Letha and Mark came as well. They were moving well and the spirit was up, Mark was in a sparkling mood while Letha had to use the “ladies room” before she would allow us a big smile. After a quick fixing she was off as well and we could transfer ourselves to Big Mountain for a long wait.
The Big Mountain aid station is situated in a mountain pass which provides spectacular panoramic views in both west and east directions. And during our wait we got to see what could be in store for later during the race. On the west side of the pass a beautiful view spread out where the landscape was capped by a blue sky with only a few cotton balls drifting toward us. However, the view in the eastern direction was very much gloomy. As the white cotton balls went over our heads they morphed themselves into big dark heavy rain look clouds that grew together and covered to whole skyline to the east of us. We kept hoping this division of the sky would stay that way and we would keep the race on the western side of the cloud divide.
Eventually, Letha would come down to the aid station ready for a refuel and run out with her first pacer, erhh me. Oh, would I be up for the task? Would my mountain running in Davis Mountains mean anything? The highest I got there was 5,500 feet, the lowest I would be running here was 6,000 feet! The section between Big Mountain and the next aid station, Alexander Ridge, had some steep ups and some long lasting downs with lots of lose rocks making for tough footing. Letha would come to hate this section, but she was moving well and looked strong. We were passing several runners and did not get passed ourselves during this section.
Between Alexander Ridge and Lambs Canyon aid station we slowed down a bit to recover from the many steep ups and particular downs on the section from Big Mountain. And darkness eventually also caught up with us. As it started to cool down Letha picked up the pace again and asked me to keep moving if slowed too much to wait on her. Eventually we got to Antje’s beaver pond, which this year had a dry beaver dam to pass across. Dry but still devilish and the loose sticks on the top made it easy to trip in the dark night.
A quarter mile out of Lambs Canyon we were greeted by Julie who loyally would be greeting Letha coming into the aid stations the rest of the race. But Julie should not have been meeting us and we learned the Mark had injured his foot and was out of the run. What a disappointment for him. After Lambs we moved on to a couple of steep climbs. First we ran on a single trail through the forest with a steep drop off to the side. Crossing the pass at the top we were met by a beautiful view of Salt Lake City night light spreading out underneath us. It was also here we met Wendy Hanson the youngest slammer this year. She received a well needed mental boost from Letha while we all ran together for a while. Down from the pass we hit a black top road which would lead us up to the Big Water aid station. This black top went on forever and felt like being on a treadmill set at 10 % grade and no chance of turning off the darn machine. But Letha found her good uphill stride kept reeling in runner after runner. That lady can walk. But the endless black top was getting to us and eventually we saw a headlamp walking toward us and we asked how far to the aid station. “15 minutes” answered the headlamp to which Letha responded here in a language I will not repeat in print. “Letha, it’s me Julie” it came from the headlamp and we all finally recognized each other. If Letha had walked fast she just found her overdrive and she started to out walk Julie and myself. After a mad walk we finally reached the aid station and some well deserved hot soup.
It was getting cold and Letha changed to her warm night outfit while Jay looked like he was ready for a polar expedition. After some more hot soup and some noodles Letha and Jay were sent off for the next section toward Brighton where we would see them again.
We packed our stuff and Letha’s drop bags and took off to Brighton where heated bathrooms were waiting. Quite a luxury for a mountain ultra race and they even provided toothbrushes to help refresh yourselves. As we waited for Letha Robert arrived in what we thought was a great time. Robert looked awfully lax about getting ready to run back out again. He was disappointed that he had had no flash light in his last drop bag. Robert had subsequently borrowed two flashlights that burned out on him along the trails. As Robert scrambled through his Brighton drop bag he discovered that a “knuckle head” (Robert’s own words) had put his missing flashlight into wrong drop bag. One can only assume that Robert will discuss this mistake with his “knuckle head” friend back in Dallas. It became more and more clear that we were not going to see Robert get out on the trails again, since he argued it was not worth to him to finish this Wasatch past 30 hours. Robert has four WF100 previous finishes so I guess it was not worth the pain to get a finish over a DNF.
As the night progressed the night sky was illuminated with a flashing lightshow from a thunderstorm coming in our direction. And in front of the storm came our new pacing queen, Sarah with Juan. I am not sure what was most energetic Sarah or the thunderstorm but she had me pull Juan out of the bathroom to move him back out on the trails faster. While pushing Juan around at the aid station, Sarah discovered Robert lounging comfortably in a chair. If she had been verbal trying to get Juan going, it was nothing compare to the comments that quickly flowed out of Sarah’s mouth. Robert looked like he was going to disappear into the chair had it been possible.
Well, Sarah had more energy and took off with Juan for a thunderstorm covered section. In later reports we heard that the thunderstorm did catch up to them and the hail and icy condition made the footing very interesting to say the least.
While the storm was at its peak over Brighton, Jay and Letha arrived. Julie had gathered all Letha’s drop bags from the previous stations and hoped between them Letha would be able to find what was needed to bring her through the storm and the remainder of the race. The drop bags and amenities at Brighton got used to the max and the two runners were sent out again in diminishing rain as the daylight started to break.
Now we just had to get to the finish line and get ready for celebration the Slammer’s arrival in the afternoon sometime. On the way out of the Brighton aid station we met a runner who had had to DNF and needed a short ride to a friend who was waiting for him on the road side. In return he showed us a shortcut back to the finish line and saved us a long drive around to the highway.
At the finish line area there was a nice shower waiting and long night without sleep got washed away under a good scrub of soap. It was amazing to watch the runners come in one after one. The sub 24 hour runners had been in a long time before we got there, but all the runners finishing were amazing. The little bit I saw of the trails was enough to tell me that it is an enormous feat to finish the WF100. Then I got to think about finishing it as the last of four 100 milers just three weeks apart AND with Leadville as the race just three weeks ago. My legs quivered just thinking about it. Doing the slam is not for just anyone. And with this race they try to knock you out right from the start by sending you straight up the Chin Scraper a climb to the top, ascent of 5,000 feet over the first miles of the race. The RD sure wants to separate the meek from the strong.
As we waited we could follow our runners via excellent and almost real time updates. Each aid station called in to a central computer system the times of the runners as they arrived and left, so we easily could track our runners. A great service offered from the race management. Overall a fantastically well executed race arrangement.
We could see that it soon was time to expect Jay and Letha at the last aid station some seven miles before the finish. As I was checking just one more time to be sure of the expected timing I ran into Jay at the parking lot. What a surprise, or maybe not. But Letha had DNF’ed her pacer at the Pole Line and taking off in strong style. Good job Jay though, we all know your foot causing you trouble but you still went out there to support Letha in her quest. However, that also meant that Letha was alone out there for the last trek in. Julie and I took off to run out toward Letha to help encourage her the last miles in. We were also expecting Sarah and Juan I bit ahead of Letha. We started to climb into the mountains and Julie pulled away from me, since I could not keep the pace as her strong and fresh legs. I guess the 24 miles last night were still in my legs or closer to the truth that Julie really was stronger me.
Up through a single trail in a wooded area I could hear Julie meet with Juan and Sarah. Shortly after they came toward me and I could see Slammer Juan move very well down the trail with a chipper Sarah right at his heals. They certainly were a great working team and an inspiration to watch as they flew by exchanging a few cheers on the trail.
I got up to a point with a great view down over the finish line area in the valley below. It was a beautiful day with the birds singing above my head. I decided to wait because I was concerned about Letha having more than one pacer on the last stretch. I would hate to cause a DQ during the last few miles of a Slam. But after a while I moved further up the trail and eventually met Letha and Julie about four miles from the finish line. Letha was moving very well with a confident smile on her face. This was going to be a successful Slam finish!
I trailed Julie and Letha most of the way to the finish line area where I tried to run ahead to warn the other NTTR folks about Letha’s arrival. But they were nowhere to see, I guess some rain had forced them to move their chairs. But as soon as Letha crossed the finish line they all came out from all corners to celebrate the new Slammer. An amazing feat finished in style. Well done and congratulation Letha!!! And thanks to the other NTTR members who helped making the weekend such a rich experience.
Being able to run parts of the beautiful though tough course of Wasatch Front was a fantastic experience. But the scale of the event, the mountains and that it was the last of four closely spaced 100 milers is just unbelievable while still real. Humbling is what I will call it and I have leaned deep respect for those who dare to attempt it.
After I returned from Wasatch Front I have been in Bogotá, Colombia and I have certainly learned to appreciate the freedom we have at home. Bogotá is beautifully situated in the mountains at about 8,500 feet. Since it is near equator the temperature year round is perfect for running. However, the mountains you can see anywhere you are in the town are off limits. They are either controlled by banditos who will strip you for you money, jewelry or watch, or by the rebels. One is constantly reminded of the unrest in this country since Bogotá has so much military people patrolling with assault riffles, police and private security people. Getting into my company’s office building is like entering a high security zone with special gates and fences designed to deflect bomb blasts. I can’t wait to get home to run in flat Houston. At least it is free from that kind of terror.