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Bear 100

Ian Saunders
September 27th, 2019 · 17 min read

Race information

  • What? The Bear 100
  • When? September 27th, 2019
  • How far? 100 miles
  • Where? Utah, US
  • Website: https://bear100.com
  • Strava activity: Strava
  • Finish time: 33:54:01

Goals

GoalDescriptionCompleted?
AFinish with friendsYes, kinda
BFinishYes
CExperience running for > 30 hoursYes

Training

For a month or so leading up to the 10 Peaks race I had been nursing a lingering Achilles injury. I had tried both massaging and physical therapy, and though it was possible to push through the pain until the Achilles warmed up, I decided that the best course of action was to take a few months off running and cycling. This was a hard decision as aside from the pain, I was feeling stronger than ever.

Fast forward to 2019 and I had a place for the London marathon (yay for GFA). I had been averaging around 10 km a week and upped it to around 30 km leading up to the race. I decided to go out at 3:00 pace, see how long I could last and then “fun” run the rest. I managed the half in 1:28 and then blew up around 32 km, with a finishing time of 3:13. More importantly, the Achilles held up!

A few months later I ran a similar race in the San Francisco marathon, with a 1:29 | 3:15. Though I was slightly better trained, I was still not putting in enough miles for sub-3 to be realistic and certainly not enough hill work! SF Marathon was good fun, though I felt it was a shame I wasn’t back to peak shape. It takes time to rebuild…

Perhaps we should discuss this race? Building up to Bear I focused on consistent running, without any mammoth runs and forgoing my usual 50+ km days. With that said, I did pace ~50 miles of Western States, starting 8 pm to 11 am - so I had danced with the psychological part of ultra running.

Pre-race

My initial foray into ultra running was with Sam (See The ONER), and after a few too many beers in late 2018 we decide it would be fun to do a race together again. I was also keen to run for at least 30 hours, to get a different experience from sub-24. Would I hallucinate? I was keen to find out! Why suffer alone? We managed to convince 2 running friends to come along for the ride. A few days later, Nick came to his senses but Dan, from 2018 Ten Peaks Fame, did not change his mind. Bear is known for being a notoriously hard race, and it was going to be Dan’s first 100 miler. Sam, Dan, and I - the fellowship of the Bear!

Fast forward to the Tuesday before the race. Sam and Dan flew into Salt Lake City from London, and myself from San Francisco. We stayed in a very cool AirBNB fully equipped with a massive cinema and our old university favourite, foosball. As I had some work to do, I skipped the early morning 5 km shakeout run. When the boys came home, they were breathing far harder than they should be. Was it due to jet lag? In unison they declared that the air felt thinner, and to prove their point, Dan pointed out that his resting heart rate was 10 BPM over where it should be.

Warm and wet weather gear. Warm and wet weather gear.

Post work, we sorted out a few chores including fixing my ultra vest and grabbing a delicious Five Guys burger. Onwards to Logan from Salt Lake City! Dan and Sam kept going on about the thin air, so I had to get in on this action. On arrival, we did a brisk 5 km jog in our new digs, and sadly, it did feel harder than it should have. Pre-race nerves? Lack of acclimatization? Too much burger?

The next day we took it easy, chilling at home, before heading for a very efficient race briefing. After the elaborate pre-race setup of Umstead and Western States, the Bear was frugal and to the point. We got to see Courtney Dauwalter chilling out and Jeff Browning walking around. We found out that Courtney was not racing but supporting her husband! Rock on!

Chilled race briefing. Chilled race briefing.

Race

Start to CP5 (0 to 36.92 miles)

Aid stations: Logan Peak, Leatham Hollow, Richards Hollow, Cowley Canyon, Right Hand Fork

In a minor twist, rather than a Saturday start, Bear begins on Friday morning. After the heat of Western States, we were greeted with a lovely fresh 6 am start. Sam, Dan and I were all nervous, but looking forward to the adventures that lay ahead. As we checked in, we met some people we hung out with at Western States - small world. And with that the race began!

Fellowship of the Bear! Fellowship of the Bear!

After a few stop-start runs the gradient increased, and we hit a long single track climb. The first challenge of being a group of 3 came early. I don’t really enjoy getting stuck in the middle of a long train of people. The issue is that you end up moving at the pace of the aggregate slowness of everyone in front of you. I pushed forward, but couldn’t get Dan and Sam to follow. I stayed ahead of the train, and dropped back again to run with Sam/Dan a little while later. We hit some flats and downhill runnable sections, but as we were in the middle of a train we couldn’t run as much as we could have.

Following the train. Following the train.

Forging our way forward, we chatted to some of the other runners. Sam reacquainted himself with a lady who he shared some miles with at Western. On that day, the race didn’t go her way - hopefully the Bear would be more successful.

We hit what was to be the most beautiful running section of the whole race, a long winding descent into Leatham Hollow. The bright red and yellows of autumn will take your breath away, if you are brave enough to look up from the twisted roots underfoot.

Glorious colors. Glorious colors.

Upwards and onwards. Upwards and onwards.

We hit Leatham Hollow feeling great, the aid stations and support volunteers were great. As I was feeling a little adventurous, I grabbed a slice of freshly cooked bacon. Sam and Dan were also staying on top of their nutrition and spirits were high.

We power walked out of the aid station to let the food settle. As we started an easy jog, I was just ahead of Sam and Dan. After a minute or two, Sam shouted for me to stop. Dan had vomited.

For most people, vomiting is par-for-course on Ultra runs. We had said this to Dan before the race, and reminded him again at this point. That said, I was a little concerned. It was still super early in the race, and this was the first time Dan had vomited in 20 years!

Glorious colors. Glorious colors.

As we pushed past Richards Hollow aid station, spirits were once more on the way up. We were about to hit a long up-hill section, giving time for the food to settle further. We attacked the long steep hill with vigour, breaking up the climb with a few tactical breaks to catch our breath. As the cloud cover dissipated and the hot sun emerged, we began drenching our buffs in the cool stream running along the trail. This certainly made the heat more manageable. We were all feeling the effort but kept pushing ourselves. There was still a long way to go! Sam had a tactical chunder, but bounced back pretty quickly.

Cowley Canyon was a stand-out aid station with an amazing banana bread. Sadly, tasty baked goods can only go so far, and cracks were starting to show in the fellowship. I could see a long race at this rate, and I was keen to get a move on!

Emerging from the aid station, we knocked out another long hot hill. This involved a fair amount of marching from shade-to-shade. The three of us pushed hard on the long climb, eventually reaching the apex.

Heat and hills are effort. Heat and hills are effort.

After summiting we all put in an excellent effort, getting through a hard climb and committing to a stringent run-walk schedule. My repeated cries of, “let’s run this section”, were paying dividends - hard love! Bear is a drop-dead gorgeous race, and this section delivered rocky landscape views with occasional streams, which we dropped our buffs into as often as possible.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached Right Hand Fork. On entering the aid station Dan seemed somewhat deflated, hopefully the help from our crew would set him right. They fixed us up with drinks, chips, Gatorade, and an ice-lolly. I even think there were some sock changes! I am usually a stickler for time in aid stations, but on this occasion a longer break would help recovery and hopefully get us back on track. After a twenty minutes break we set off.

Sam retched again just before we left.


CP5 to CP6 (36.92 to 45.15 miles)

Aid stations: Temple Fork

Personally I felt decent given the ascent and heat. I was a few meters ahead and Sam caught up with me, he asked if I should start considering going ahead as time was slowly ticking away. To be honest, I had thought about pushing on, that said our A goal was to get everyone to the end. Sam and I played through the options a bit more and Sam expressed that he was happy to stay with Dan and take a DNF in the worst case. He knew that I was keen on finishing to get my 2020 Western qualifier done. Regardless, I was eager to help Dan through his first 100 miler, and so we quelled the conversation and pushed on.

Two miles and 30 minutes later, I could tell Dan was struggling. The tell tale sign was when we hit little runnable sections, he just didn’t fancy running them, even after cajoling. This early in the day, especially with decent weather, you need to be ticking these boxes. We tried some run-walking, but to little avail.

As an aside, two of our perhaps unique rules when running are:

  1. If you are walking, anyone can start running and you need to follow.
  2. If you are running, anyone can shout “Trail Run” and you need to start walking. No questions asked.

Why “Trail Run”? A little secret of ultra-trail running is that you rarely run the hills, but instead, power walk them. There is some science to this, but I will leave it to the reader to research. So, how do you decide when to walk and how to synchronize? Simple, first person to shout “Trail Run”.

I heard the cry, “Trail Run”, from Dan and we sat down. I walked a few meters ahead to grab some shade. Before I had sat down, I knew what was coming. With the waft of the warm Utah breeze, my hunch was confirmed - I overheard the now infamous words, “it’s better to have a hard conversation now than in a few hours”.

We had the talk. Honestly, I was in two minds. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to get Dan to the finish line. On the other hand, if I stayed, I would be doing more harm than good. Leaving would release Dan from worrying about my race and he could focus on himself. Tricky.

I gave Dan a hug, Sam a fist pump. And decided to push on alone. The fellowship had splintered. Only 100 km to go.

After leaving Sam and Dan behind, I made rapid progress to CP7, hitting our target split times. There was some truly beautiful running along some amazing trails accented with various people vomiting on the side of the road - it’s not the easiest race in the world! There was one particularly lovely section along a river with a rapid descent which was glorious. I dunked my buff into the cold water and rejoiced.

As I hit the aid station, our crew looked down the road and asked about Sam and Dan, as this time they weren’t just behind me. After delivering the bad news, I estimated they would be around 45 mins behind me. The next aid station would be half-way and I had a fully stocked drop bag waiting for me. I felt I could forgo crew support given that I suspected Dan would DNF as this check-point, and I was happy for the crew to skip on me and get them home.

CP6 to CP7 (45.15 to 51.84 miles)

Aid stations: Tony Grove

After running with two of my best friends, it was slightly demoralizing to leave an aid station by myself. As the sun went down, the sodden buff around my neck reminded me that it was turning cold, quickly. Here began 10 km of drudgery. Including 3,000 feet (900 meters) of climbing. Not far out from the aid station, a runner and his pacer caught up with me, they inquired where the rest of my team was, I delivered the unfortunate update, and we started chatting. Rather than be dropped by these runners, I asked if they minded me joining as this would help get me through the mental funk I was struggling with. I managed to hold on to these dear souls for around three-quarters of the climb before I said I needed a breather. Thank you unsung heroes, your help meant a lot. To put some perspective in how I was feeling, I had to eat a gel, something that I only take as an emergency measure on ultra runs. After a few minutes my heart rate felt better and I was ready to get a move on. Just before taking off a lady caught up with me, she was suffering from my old nemesis, the Achilles Tendon. As Karma would have it she asked if I could help pace her up the hill, and we worked together to get to the aid station!

As I entered the aid station I felt terrible. I can honestly say that was the hardest 10 km of trail “running” I have ever done. An unexpected chorus of cheers rang out, it was Sam and Dan. They gave me a quick update - after reaching Temple Fork, Sam and Dan had decided to drop. Rather than going back to a warm shower they came to meet me at the half way point to cheer me on.

Now, this was selfless of them. And it was greatly appreciated. But, seeing them “finished” made me feel a bit lost, with many thoughts running through my mind. Do I really need to finish this race? I’ve run 100 miles before. I could go home now, we could hit some pizza and share our mutual war stories. As these dark thoughts entered my mind, the choice to continue became unclear. For what it was worth, Sam and Dan were trying their very best to get me going. I needed to think, honestly, I was at best 50/50 to continue. There was really tasty pizza at home…

Then three things happened. Firstly, Sam volunteered to pace me for the final 25 miles. Secondly, Dan said he would join the crew. That was huge. If my friends were willing to come battle the Bear, after running for 12 hours themselves, how could I say no? I was now 75% convinced.

Glancing across the fire, I overheard the conversation between a runner and an aid station crew member who was on anti-DNF patrol! The gist of it was, 100 milers are hard, expected the unexpected, don’t give up.

Without further ado, I changed into a fresh business suit - this felt good. Before I left, an unexpected bonus, Dan donated his warm running top. The top was much appreciated as it was of a much better pedigree than than the one I was rocking. Before I left the aid station, I finished my fueling with 2 tasty hot-dogs (ketchup + mayonnaise). As I exited Sam reminded me that they would see me again in 3 aid stations.

CP7 to CP10 (51.84 to 75.9 miles)

Aid stations: Franklin Trailhead, Logan River/Steep, Beaver Mt Lodge

Leaving the aid station, there was no doubt that we were deep into the darkness of the night. This section had a slight up-hill followed by mainly downhill sections. I felt beaten down, but kept up with the consistent run-walking. Often at this distance I would have picked up a pacer, so it was a new experience to run alone. As is usual at this stage of the race, there began a lot of leap-frogging. This was exacerbated by overestimating how hard I could go, blowing up and having to take breaks. I just couldn’t find a rhythm. It was during this section I developed a fondness for the occasional fallen down tree, now known as the “Trees of Relaxation”, for mini sit-down breaks. I also developed an affection for their cousins, the “Rocks of Relaxation”. After a little while I managed to find a consistent rhythm and made good progress with far less leapfrogging.

Before the race began, we calculated estimated pacing between aid stations with a smattering of rounding which was usually under 400 meters. For some reason, I had applied a very large level of rounding into Franklin Trailhead - where is this aid station?! I’m not certain if it was GPS error, rounding or who knows, but it took 2 km more than I expected! This felt like an eternity.

Exiting the aid station, there was a very steep hill and it was chucking down with rain. The torrent of mud and gradient resulted in unlocking a new achievement, a pace of 2 km/h. I got to experiment with various slow hill walking techniques to try speed up. Joy.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally managed to get to the top. As I began to wind my way downhill the rain continued to pour and pour, turning what would in normal circumstances be a very runnable trail into a muddy slip-and-slide. So much mud! It was during this section that fatigue was starting kick in, causing me to lose it a bit. I saw a lion which turned out to be a rock. A shark, otherwise known as a tree trunk. And lots and lots of snakes - which were of course real. Real fallen branches.

As I slid down a path I came upon a couple of runners. “Hello London”, they shouted. I had bumped into the pacing team from earlier! After many hours of solace, it was so great to run into some familiar friends and have a quick rant about the race. It wasn’t just me, everyone was struggling, and as the rain slowed to a stop we rejoiced for half an hour. Then the rain came back in a biblical deluge. It was at this point that my rain jacket had enough, and decided to let me get wet. Given we were in the middle of the night, it was damn cold - the only thing keeping me warm was Dans jacket! I pushed on knowing that a pacer was waiting for at the next aid station, in all honesty my will to go on was not high.

I eventually arrived at the aid station. As I looked around, I didn’t see any crew. This was a non-crew access aid station. I had miscalculated, my pacer was at the next aid station. Damn. Sitting down in the warm aid station tent, I began drying my clothes and seriously considered my life choices. To DNF or not?

A major downside of taking an L at this point was that this was a pretty remote aid station. If I quit here I would have to wait ages to get shuttled out, which seemed like a poor trade. Another thing to consider, I had run 110 km - don’t let the Bear beat you. 10 minutes break. Warmer clothes, rain stopped. Let’s do this.

CP10 to FIN (75.9 to 99.7)

Aid stations: Gibson Basin, Beaver Creek Campground, Ranger Dip, Fish Haven

Leaving the aid station we had a to cross a river. Due to the rain there was no way to cross via hopping from rock-to-rock. Splash, instant icy cold wet feet! I had to smile, it really didn’t matter any more, looking up ahead the next climb was a mud river. I kept chipping away. The mud sections proved really taxing as my shoes clogged up, and I had to keep my wits about me to not slip and bash my head on exposed rocks. Closing in on the Beaver Creek Campground aid station, I slid down a hill and met up with the pacing team again. Where had 6 hours of my life gone?

Arriving at the aid station, Sam shouted as I walked past the crew car - woohooo! I was very well attended to with my feet being cleaned, new socks applied, change of top, and finally converting my rain jacket to a poncho. One thing I opted not to change was Dans jacket, it had become a talisman. The jacket got wet, but as long as I kept pushing it miraculously dried. Now that I had a pacer I was able to switch off a little bit. Dan had devised a pacing chart which was too complex for me understand, so I left pacing in Sam’s hands. Smashed some noodles, and we were off!

A little muddy... A little muddy...

Even though Sam and I have have run thousands of kilometers together, he had never had the pleasure of pacing me. I laid out my ground rules.

  1. You say “Let’s go”, and I will try my best to run, or most probably ultra-shuffle.
  2. If the path looks marginally like a hill, I will probably ignore rule 1.

In terms of time, I had now run longer than I had ever run before, but Sam had brought new wind into my sails. Our pace picked up and we rapidly made it to the next aid station. To avoid any risk of blow ups later in the race, I was instructed by Sam to sit down and take a 5 min rest. We were well ahead of cut-offs, so time was not an issue. Eating was a struggle. As Sam came back with a selection of foods, I noticed he was nibbling on a freshly cooked pancake - problem solved.

This section was compose of a generous number of rolling hills, we made good consistent pace, following the spirit of Dan’s pacing chart. I also introduced Sam to my watch pacing technique. I try to pace aid-station to aid-station. In the spirit of keeping things simple whilst running, you only need to remember 2 numbers, how far to go, and the time budgeted to get to the next aid station. If so inclined, you can calculate such things as pace on your own. There is one important trick with this technique - start the new lap as you enter the aid station. This not only is a true reflection of this sections pace, but reminds you how long you have been dawdling at the aid station - eating into your time to get the lap done - it’s evil but effective.

As we made our way through we got to experience all the joys of trail running. Rain pouring on us, sliding in ludicrous amounts of mud, hails battering us from all sides, lightning crashing around us. What good value for money.

Did I mention there was mud? Did I mention there was mud?

We worked out way through the aid stations until the final one, Ranger Dip. At this point I was feeling a bit chilly and took a slightly longer aid station break. It had been raining a lot and everything felt wet and muddy. As we exited the aid station we were met swiftly with the steepest climb of the race to the highest point, this got the heart rate going and warmed us up. The power of walking poles were demonstrated on this section, as we were rapidly overtaken by a few thoughtful individuals who had picked up a pair. We made consistent progress, occasionally enjoying a few relaxation rocks.

Crossing state lines :D< Crossing state lines :D<

Enjoying a relaxation rock! Enjoying a relaxation rock!

As we hit the top, the hail came at us with force. The ground slowly turned white from the hail! How marvelous. We descended. And climbed. And descended. I started to feel myself micro sleeping. After what seemed like an eternity, probably 2 hours, we hit civilization. There was 2 km left of real paved road leading us to salvation.

As we approached the end, a sprightly runner appeared on the horizon. If only I could borrow those fancy fresh legs! Then he started filming us. It was Dan! He had been tracking us via GPS and come to support us for the last few kilometers. Together, we turned left, then right, then broke into a sprint finish as we did in NDW, the Oner and every other race I have completed. In some ways we got that A goal too. A tear or two was shed and I had joined the Black Bear club.



Post-race

As I write these final paragraphs it has been a week since finishing Bear. My legs are in decent shape and I have recovered, aided by copious Japanese food. I’m glad I got to experience running for such an extended period of time. It’s not something I would want to do often, but it gives me a taste for what it is like to be out on your legs for a ludicrous amount of time. Would I do Bear 100 again? Probably not, part of the joy of running is to experience a new unknown. I always wanted Bear to be an odyssey and not a time-trial - I got exactly what I wanted. What about Dan? I suspect his next 100 attempt won’t be too far away. This sport can be weirdly addictive.

What’s next? I have TP100 2020 in the UK booked. If I can manage to get a consistent training block it would be great to break my PB set at Umstead, but I am still a few months from knowing if that is a reality. At the end of the day, I enjoy getting out there no matter the speed, so will err on the side of caution as I don’t fancy taking another year off!

Black Bear Club, 30 - 36 Hours Black Bear Club, 30 - 36 Hours

Strava

More articles from Ian Saunders

10 Peaks

I started running hard to catch up, and after a few moments the realization dawned - no, I would not be able to catch them. I was pretty baked from 30ish kms of heat and hills.

July 14th, 2018 · 9 min read

Edinburgh Marathon

As I took the hair-pin turn around I said goodbye to my drafting team and upped the pace to just below Marathon pace.

May 27th, 2018 · 7 min read
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