I’m not really a runner, although that doesn’t mean I don’t do a fair bit of running. I enjoy it as part of training for alpine climbing, but it’s not my primary focus. When our friend, Jess, asked if Sarah and I wanted to run the Bangtail Divide race with her, I was a bit apprehensive. I’ve never run that far, much less in a race. My one and only official race was a 5K last Thanksgiving in Arizona, which I did manage to finish 8th overall and 1st in my age group. That felt good, but I knew the Bangtail race was going to be full of competitive and well trained people.
I try to support Sarah’s running goals (she loves it and ran cross country through high school and college), and I felt it would be a good challenge. So I agreed to join in.
Last year, before we ran the Bridger Ridge Traverse (not during the official race, and unsupported) we had been running a lot. We spent many days running mountain trails with lots of elevation gain. This year, our training program was different and more focused on alpine climbing. It dictated we carry heavy packs up steep hills at a low heart rate. While the training stimulus wasn’t specific to running, I hoped we’d built up a big enough base to endure the official 23.4 miles with 3045′ of gain / 2523′ of loss the Bangtail race requires.
Unfortunately, when race day arrived on Saturday, I don’t think either Sarah or I felt ready. The most recent long run we’d done was around 10 miles, less than half what we were about to attempt. I felt comfortable with the elevation gain (since not to long before, we’d done a climbing day with 7,000+ feet with packs on), but I really worried about the length. During the Bridger Traverse run, I collapsed just after we finished. That run had less total distance, but more elevation change. Memories of laying on a picnic table, exhausted and delirious, ran through my mind. Should have prepared better. Should have run more… Mentally, I just didn’t know how my body would handle what I was about to attempt.
But when we lined up at the starting line, I resigned myself to the fact that I was here now and would do what I could. I tried to think about all the time we’d spent training, all the heavy squats, box steps, and hill climbs we’d done. I’m fit and ready.
And then at 6:30AM, the race started. Sarah, Jess, and I ran down a dirt road with 147ish other people. It was crazy hearing that many pairs of shoes crunching through the gravel and dirt.
The field quickly spread out, the people who would finish in a little over three hours quickly pulling away. Jess (well trained and having just completed a marathon earlier this year) set a fast pace of her own, and was soon ahead of Sarah and I, who’d agreed to run together for awhile.
After the first mile of gentle elevation gain on the road, the race turns off onto a steep trail, and begins switchbacking like crazy. Sarah and I gained the single track trail ahead of just a few people. We were both freezing from the early mountain morning (running in the shorts and T-shirts we’d need for the later heat). I began worrying I would finish last (if at all). Everyone was so quick, and I felt I was already struggling.
So let me say this: One thing I learned from my only other race experience is that I don’t do well with pacing. I tend to go faster than I should, too soon, especially when someone is ahead of me. Knowing this, prior to Bangtail, I made a plan to not push too hard or let the race aspect drive me. I would treat it as training, which is when I do a great job of focusing and doing what I should.
When we hit the first set of switch backs, something shifted in my mind. I felt like the uphills were going to be the only place I would have an advantage, that I would need to go fast and get as far ahead as possible, so that when the flatter portions of the race came, I could go slower.
I began speed hiking the steep portions of the switchbacks, and running the lesser inclined bits. Most of the people in front of us just walked, and Sarah and I started passing clumps of racers, two and three at a time. I could feel my heart rate climbing out of my planned zone (and my heart rate monitor confirmed it), but I shut that information out, clinging to the new plan that I would go slower once we reached the top of the primary elevation gain.
After a bit of this, Sarah told me she was pushing too hard in order to keep up, and I sort of slowed down. I kept going faster than I’d originally planned though. At one point, when the trail flattened out a bit, I turned to look back at who I thought was Sarah, and give her a high-five. Instead, I found a much older woman who was startled at my upraised hand.
I let her pass, and she motored ahead of me for awhile. After a short distance, she took a direct 90 degree turn off the trail into a small clump of trees. Nature called, apparently. I never saw her the rest of the race.
After the first big hill climb, things became uneventful. I did a horrible job sticking to my plan, which made me anxious about completing the race. Would I have the energy and endurance to finish? My heart rate was way high, but my breathing and muscles felt fine. So I kept pushing, mile after mile, wondering. My average heart rate display kept creeping up, making me feel like an idiot. But I couldn’t make myself slow down. I kept passing people, feeding my inner speed dragon.
When we hit the first aid station at around 4.5 miles, I didn’t even stop. None of the food sounded good, I still had water in my backpack, and I didn’t want to get passed by anyone. More miles went by, and I wound my way up more hills. I felt lonely and missed running with Sarah. I contemplated walking, or even stopping, till she caught up, but a deep part of me had taken over, and I couldn’t quit running.
When I hit the second aid station (at around the half way point), I stopped. I needed to replenish my fuel supply, so I grabbed a couple energy gels and shoved them in my pocket. I downed a shot of Coke and ate a few pickles. They tasted so good.
Jess happened to be at the aid station as well, and we left at the same time. She was holding herself back, thinking about the second elevation gain spike we were going to face during the last quarter of the race. I kept thinking about how I was gambling with my pace, that I might not be able to finish, that the last elevation gain and the huge downhill after it might do me in.
As we moved into the third quarter of the race, Jess effortlessly started pulling away. I couldn’t keep up, even in my passing frenzy. I continued seriously wondering if I might have pushed too hard in the beginning, and would collapse on the final big hill climb. Guess I’ll find out…
Now the day was really starting to warm up, and heat became an issue. When I entered a long stretch of dense, old growth forest, it felt like a dream come true. The trail was slightly down hill, but not so much that it really worked me. I flew. I was completely alone through much of this, and I enjoyed listening to trance music cranked up in my earbuds. For a moment, I forgot my anxiety, forgot about what was coming, and just reveled in the primal joy of running hard.
Then, I exited the beautiful, cooling shade, and began ascending the final stretch of hills. It was hot, dusty, and I begin passing people again, which made me push harder. At the final aid station, with just ~8 miles left to go, I took a few more shots of Coke, ate a pickle, grabbed a few gels, and set off once again. Jess had arrived at the station just before me, and left a few people ahead. She quickly disappeared, running hard and obviously knowing she had plenty of energy left to finish the race.
I was not feeling as confident. The Coke gave me an initial burst of optimism, and I was still running the gradual uphills. I passed people, heard them breathing harder than me. Doubt continued to linger about whether I would finish or not.
At one point, I remember the trail turning left at the peak of a hill, marking the last bit of the secondary section of hill climbing. As I crested and turned, I descended into hell… The trail dropped steeply, full of loose rocks, roots, and all manner of things to catch my weary feet on. I stumbled a few times, righting myself before I went full sprawl in the rocky path. My legs burned, my knees ached. I went into my suffer hole. The downhill was unrelenting, punishing. I regretted trying so hard, so early, for so long. I’d tried too hard, and now my legs were going to fail me on the last 4 miles of the race. This was farther than I’d ever run before, and I didn’t feel ready for it.
Thankfully, the angle finally lessened, and I began to feel a little better. I forced energy gels down, knowing fuel was critical. I felt twinges of nausea, like I had just before I collapsed after the Bridger Ridge Traverse. Drink, eat, focus, I kept telling myself, switching to metal music to amp myself up for the last bit of suffering.
Eventually, my GPS said I’d run further than the “official” distance of the race, something I had tried to mentally prepare for. It was still quite a let down. I passed two female runners, and and then after a mile or two, one of them passed me back. Eventually, we all three settled into a steady pace, encouraging each other through the last few grueling miles. Our new leader said we were almost to the finish, and I briefly wondered what her definition of almost was. Then we we heard the cheering from the finish. After another mile, I ran across the line for an official time of 5:07:29.
Jess had finished several minutes ahead of me, 4:58:38, and seemed relatively fresh. I found a place to sit, and as we talked, I began ingesting as much cold water and pretzels as my somewhat nauseous stomach would accept. Sarah came in at 6:16:24. She’d done an excellent job of sticking to our original plan and I’m very proud of her.
The three of us hung out for awhile, resting and cheering for more competitors as they came down the trail. Eventually, we took a shuttle to our car, and went back to town for ice cream and Chinese food. A good end to a good day in the mountains.
Post race, I’ve had mixed feelings. I was psyched to finish and felt I had a pretty good time, considering I’d done very little run specific training. But I also felt bad for not sticking to my plan, for pushing so hard, and for letting the race aspect get inside my head. I don’t like losing control of my emotions like that.
I also felt weird for leaving Sarah during the race. We climb and train together, and not finishing at the same time made me feel odd. I enjoy being with her, giving and receiving encouragement, completing goals together. If she had been faster than me, I wouldn’t have wanted to slow her down, though, so who knows. I know I slowed her down several times when we did the Bridger Ridge Traverse, and I still feel bad for that. Maybe I’m not meant to be a racer. Being competitive feels like being out of control, but it did inspire me to push really hard. Double edged sword and all that.
At any rate, I have plenty of time to think and learn the control I need before we run the Bangtail again in 2018. And next time, we’ll do a bit more run specific training…
And for those who care, I’ll leave you with my race stats:
Participant Name: Zachariah Wahrer
Race Name: 2017 Bangtail Divide 38k
Race Date: 7/1/2017 6:30:00 AM
Distance: 38000 meters (23.6122 miles)
Finish Time: 05:07:29.41
Overall Place: 74 out of 129
M U45 Place: 35
Male Place: 42 out of 58
Trail Run Place: 74
Pace per Mile: 13:01
Average Speed: 4.6 miles per hour
Pace per Kilometer: 8:06
Average Speed: 7.4 kilometers per hour