One of the reasons I sign up to both enjoy and suffer through ultra-marathons is for the experience of sheer adventure. The nature. The people. The camaraderie of the trail running community.
Another more personal reason: ultra-marathons provide excellent opportunities to get to know myself at deeper levels.
I intended to finish the 62 miles of this race on very little training. While I only made it through half the race, I left with far more valuable lessons than I would have had I finished.
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How do I respond physically, mentally and emotionally when the suck inevitably begins? How long am I able to push through, and when do I begin to fall apart? After the race is done and I’ve had some time to process the experience, what made the experience great? What made it not so great? What could I have done better?
These are the types of questions I answer when I put myself through hard things. The knowledge gained is readily applied to daily life.
The better I get to know myself, the easier it becomes to feel into my intuition and make decisions that further me down the path of fulfilling my life’s authentic purpose.
The 2021 Castle Peak 100K did not disappoint in either category: it was both a wonderful opportunity to get to know myself AND a wonderful adventure with friends both old and new.
In particular, this race furthered my learning of when I’m speaking the truth and when I’m telling little lies simply because I desperately want them to be the truth, both to myself and others.
Because sometimes I want something to be true so badly enough that I continue telling a particular story when the reality is the exact opposite. And I know I’m not alone in this practice.
The difference between the actual truth and the exact opposite can be extremely subtle in the moment.
In the months leading up to Castle Peak, I had been telling myself that I didn’t have anything to prove – not to myself, and certainly not to anyone else. I would tell anyone who would listen that I was going out to California just for the fun of it. For the love of adventure and being on the trail. Sure, I’d love to finish, but if I didn’t – oh well, no big deal.
But the truth of the matter was that I did have something to prove to myself. Of course I was going out there for the fun of it all, but I absolutely wanted to finish. And preferably within a certain amount of time for a Western States qualifier. It WAS a big deal. And saying anything to the contrary was ultimately a big fucking lie.
Sometimes you can use your physical training to get you past a particularly tough event. And sometimes you can use your mental training. In this race, it was both … until I met both of their limits at the same time.
Castle Peak is arguably the hardest 100K in the continental United States. Showing up to the starting line not physically and mentally prepared is not advisable. And while I felt my physical training leading up to the race to be severely lacking, I showed up anyway. I mean, of course I did. That’s what I do.
My 2021 entry was a carryover from 2020 when I had originally signed up for the race. While I was more physically prepared for success in 2020, my personal life had become hectic in the months prior so I was more than a little relieved and grateful for the pandemic’s ability to cancel anything it could.
The success of my previous 100K in 2019 was largely due to practicing yoga in my local studio 4-5 times a week, regular strength training with kettlebells and of course, consistent running. I was fit. I was strong. And I had wonderful support. This all led to a successful finish at the Possum’s Revenge 69 miler.
While I had continued to practice each of these activities for Castle Peak, my consistency of doing so drastically reduced in the year leading up to the race.
Yet, two successful trips earlier in the year served up a healthy dose of confidence.
Guadalupe Mountains + Carlsbad Caverns with my Father-in-Law.
I spent a few days in the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks with my father-in-law in early May of 2021. I was fit enough to get up to Guadalupe Peak and back down in good time. This was promising.
The only mistake I made was not re-applying sunblock at Guadalupe Peak. I simply underestimated the intensity of the sun at this time of year.
You can guess what happened while running in the middle of the desert without proper sunblock. And if your guess is anything other than the sun loving me SO hard, well, guess again.
While the severe sunburn limited the amount of running I had planned in the mountains, I was fortunately able to grab an unexpected run from the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns up to the top – a nice little hill run, avoiding the sun in the cool darkness of the caverns. While repeats would have been better, time did not permit, and I was absolutely grateful for the unexpected training run.
The view after coming out of the cavern was just fantastic. It was raining a bit as we were leaving, and I just had to grab a few photos of the beautiful landscape before we jumped back into the car.
Tushars Mountains + Humphreys Peak with Friends.
A few months later I spent a couple weeks exploring the great American southwest, driving from my home in Dallas, Texas to Flagstaff, Arizona, and then into southern Utah and back.
One of the major destinations of my trip was the Tushars mountain range in southern Utah. My buddy had asked me earlier in the year to pace him at the Tushars 100K, thought to be THE hardest 100K race in the country by people who have raced both Tushars AND Castle Peak.
It was early in my 20 miles of pacing that my runner and I met another runner and her pacer. The pacer was getting ready for the Leadville 100, one of the most well known and difficult 100 milers in the country. Later in the middle of the night, we met up again and we shared a bit of trail together, enjoying each other’s company until our respective pacers requested our presence once again.
I remember a particular aspect of this conversation well, because it came back so vividly before Castle Peak and many times after. Here was a person I admired … I admired her training, and her dedication to putting herself in the best shape possible for a successful finish of a very challening race. Physically for sure, and it seemed, mentally as well.
I told her that my training hadn’t been up to my standards. That for whatever reason I’d had trouble putting in the miles. Maybe because I’d been busy with other things in life that had taken precedence. Maybe, something else entirely. And because of this, I was just going to go out there and have fun – to do my best, whatever that was.
But this was a lie. It didn’t feel right coming out of my mouth then. And it certainly didn’t feel right speaking it at any point in time later. The truth was that I really, really wanted the finish but couldn’t figure out why I had been unable to get it together in training.
Remember earlier when I said that the Castle Peak 100K is arguably the hardest 100K in the continental United States? Well. After doing 20 miles in the Tushar Mountains, especially through the middle of a thunderstorm with lightning surrounding us as we were making it UP the mountain, I’m going to agree with those who have run both that Tushars easily wins the most difficult 100K in the continental United States against Castle Peak. The terrain is just brutal. And unrelenting. And it’s higher elevation makes it difficult to breathe as a sea-level flatlander.
My runner and I had a good time though, if you consider suffering together a good time. I do. He do. We do.
Rain. Thunderstorms at elevation. Switchback after switchback up barely-existent trail. But I was able to grab 20 miles in various conditions at elevation which proved to be excellent preparation for my own race.
The most important thing at Tushars is that my runner killed it. Maybe not in the way he expected going into the race, but he pushed through the finish on a really gnarly day that would have sidelined most individuals. I was super proud of him and he most definitely gave me material to pull from as inspiration for in the future when I’m having a difficult time in the suck.
A few days later, back in Flagstaff, and now joined by one of my bestest friends that surprised me by flying in from Florida, a group of us fast hiked up to the tippy top of Arizona: Humphreys Peak. More excellent training. More good times. Great adventure.
Ultra-marathons and the preparations to run them pay off in so many ways. This particular bout of travel led to new friends, deeper relationships, and travel into an area of the country I had never been before and deeply fell in love with.
We took some time preparing a few nights before the race so we wouldn’t be up the night before making sure our bags were ready. This is smart. I don’t usually do this, but I would absolutely recommend it. For me, it eliminates a potential source of stress and allows for better sleep the night before the race.
We took a small tour of the crewable aid stations before heading to the pre-race meeting. This allowed our crew to prepare and us to chill before the big day.
The Castle Peak 100K 2021 was a race that was suppose to happen a year prior, but like many things, the pandemic had other ideas for the race, and humanity in general. This year had a bit of wildfire drama leading up to it. Our team of three from Texas – Jourdan, Ray and myself – flew into Tahoe ready for a good time, race or no race. And there was a serious possibility of the race cancelling due to the bad air quality blowing in from the wildfires.
The Start to Johnson Canyon.
The morning air quality was surprisingly good. The race started straight up a hill void of any real trail. Loose soil resulted in lots of dust, but the real problem was being at the back of the pack in a traffic jam of waiting for other runners to slowly climb the hill. Not fun at the beginning of a race.
I forgot to bring gaiters with me, so after making it to the top of the hill, I sat down and emptied my shoes of pebbles and sand.
The view up top was awesome. My favorite image was of a Star Wars-looking ski lift, red light inside, against the backdrop of a morning sunrise. So cool. This section of the trail was smooth and easy, so I made sure to pick up the pace to bank some time I knew I’d need later.
It wasn’t long before I reached my first crewable aid-station. My fellow Texas runners were ahead of me by this point, but I was able to catch up with them at the aid-station before they took off. Our crew was there and ready to help, to which I gratefully accepted.
Johnson Canyon to Summit Lake.
Adam, part of our crew and a well-known runner around Truckee, knows this route well from regular training runs in the area. He reminded me to look back once reaching the top of the hill coming out of Johnson Canyon because the view of Donnor Lake is incredible. I did turn around. And the view was as incredible as promised – thank you Adam!
I had been trying to find earbud tips for days, and luckily found the missing tip the evening before the race. I put my earbuds around my neck before the race, and they sat there unused until around mile 10.5 when I made my first and only call during the race to my wife. No answer. I spent a few minutes listening to a podcast and then decided I’d rather be with myself in nature than somewhere else. Several miles later I would lose that earbud tip again, and this time, for good.
Summit Lake to Frog Lake.
This stretch of the trail is where I eventually caught up to Ray. He was moving slowly through a more technical portion of the trail before the descent to Frog Lake. He looked excited to see me, and … momentarily beat down. He informed me that Jourdan was no more than a half-mile ahead, and so I pushed on, running the downhills as they came.
My strategy all along was to just keep pushing forward at a steady pace. I finally passed by Jourdan on my way into the Frog Pond aid-station as she was running out. The gap, getting closer.
And then … then here comes Ray right behind me, a wtf in my mind considering how beat-down he had looked only minutes before. There is something to be said about gaining energy from others though, especially when you come across a friend that you haven’t seen in a while. I’m only guessing that’s what happened. Anyway, a couple cups of Coke, a general refuel, and a bunch of ice in my hat and Buff around my neck (something I desperately needed at the time), I was back on the trail.
Frog Lake to Warren Lake.
The way back out of Frog Pond is where I lost my earbud tip once again for good — damn. I didn’t really need additional help at this point though. I had enough Coke in me to give me a boost and honestly, it was time to stalk Jourdan and eventually take the lead.
I’m fairly strong on hills, so I’m making it a point to bust my ass as much as possible to close the gap. I packed a few bags of chips in various places and I’m trying to eat along the way to keep up my energy.
Have you ever tried to eat chips while also performing a strenous activity leaving you very out of breath? Well, it’s one of those things in life that’s really hard to do at the same time – trying to chew and take down food AND oxygen at the same time just doesn’t work very well. Nam nam, cough, choke. Haha.
The next push is where I would catch up to Jourdan. She was having issues getting her heart rate to come down, and I was acting like this stealthy predator making ground while her back was turned. Of course I went in for the kill by offering to rest and eat with her :-). And then, then I took the lead of our Texas group and continued to cruise along for a while.
But this is where it all started going downhill, both literally and figuratively, on the way … to …THE BOTTOM.
Warren Lake (THE BOTTOM).
The route to THE BOTTOM, down to Warren Lake, was absolutely gorgeous. Peter the race director warned us. He warned us not to be Adam Kimble – that we are most likely not the mountain goat that he is. He told us to be careful – to take it slow – and when a race director points out a particular aspect of the trail for a difficult race and amongst many talented, experienced individuals – it is wise to take that advice into serious consideration.
My first fall, which wasn’t even a proper fall, was on the trip down the “steps” to Warren Lake. Everything slipped but my left leg, which saved me from falling but pushed my left calf muscle to complete exhaustion where it immediately seized. It took a few minutes of breathing into it to get it functional again. After that, I decided that maybe it would be best to slow it down and take the descent a little more carefully, as the great Peter the race director suggested in our pre-race meeting.
Making it to the bottom was awesome, with heavy metal blasting, and all of the aid-station volunteers screaming “WELCOME TO THE BOTTOM!” upon arrival. The energy they had to give at such a remote location in the race was welcomed and appreciated.
This is one of the best things about the trail running community that I would love to see more of in daily life: supporting others in their own quest for greatness in life. Maybe this is easier to do when the goal of others is something straightforward and well-understood. Maybe that’s just one of our challenges in daily life – to be curious, and to try to understand where others are coming from, what they’re trying to do, and … how we can support them.
Jourdan joined me at Warren Lake about 10 minutes after I arrived. I decided to wade in, taking my shoes and socks off beforehand. Because — I mean, REMOTE MOUNTAIN LAKE! Have you experienced how beautiful and pristine mountain lakes in the middle of nowhere are? Because let me tell you, they are one the most awesome things I have experienced in my life.
Warren Lake is a fucking destination. And for Jourdan, it was essentially her end.
Warren Lake to Castle Valley.
My way out of Warren Lake was much less eventful than my way down. I was near the back of the pack in terms of people who were on time to finish. One of my Texas buddy’s (Ray) was heading down into Warren Lake as I was climbing out, wishing me good luck and pushing me to keep going. It was clear at this point that he and Jourdan were essentially calling it, so it was up to me to keep pushing on. And so I did.
I was in good spirits. It’s usually not hard for me to maintain this attitude for a considerable amount of time. Especially as I took advantage of the out and back to congratulate people as we passed one another – “Great work! Keep at it!” – that kind of thing. I absolutely love congratulating every single person that crosses my path during a race. It brings me such tremendous energy – the most positive of vibes.
On my way up into the epic ridgelines of the race, I came across a gentleman puking his guts out on the side of the trail. I asked him how he was doing, which he reasonably responded, “how does it look like I’m doing!?” And I was like, “yeah, I know man, tell me what you need.”
Unfortunately I didn’t have the salt pills he needed, but I did hook him up with some potato chips just in case. There was another runner behind me who had already called his own race and offered to stay and help the gut-emptying gentleman out.
A few miles later on the approach into the ridge lines, the previously-puking-gentleman caught up to me, thanking me for earlier and offering some knowledge on the terrain coming up. It’s always amazing to me how people can bounce back so quickly after a dreadful bout of suffering.
Going up into the ridge lines was just epic, Castle Peak being the highest peak in the race at 9,109 ft. And this is where my mood finally started to shift.
While gorgeous, the soil is silty up there. This means that if you aren’t experienced running in this type of terrain and aren’t willing to fully send it, it’s a grind and takes forever to make it through what is otherwise fairly easy. Given the amount of training I did for this race, it’s probably easy enough to guess how I faired – but I’ll make it very clear for you – this section took me for freakin' ever.
I fell a few times. I became irritated with the silt. The scree. I wanted to hang out with my friends and go have a nice dinner, especially since they were most definitely going to be pulled from the race at this point. And, it was at this time I got it in my head that I was going to quit. My next aid station would be my last. Fuck.
When you give up mentally, it’s fucking over.
I talked to the now-fully-recovered-from-puking-gentleman once again along the ridgeline. I had been wandering along for a while, not realizing that we were so close to cutoff. So when he comes barelling through, noticing my depressed mood and encouraging me to pick it up and meet him in Castle Valley and share some food together, well, I did.
He was absolutely dead-set on making the cutoff. Sometimes I wonder what’s going through people’s heads, why they are so adamant about accomplishing whatever it is they are trying to accomplish – what their why is – what is pushing them forward. And I’d have a more clearer picture in regards to the gentleman shortly.
I didn’t even realize that I was getting close to the cut-off time. Apparently they gave us an extra hour. Without it there is no way I would have even been close, but with it …
Castle Valley (The END).
I didn’t make it. I was about five minutes behind cutoff.
I later learned that the puking gentleman is a local doctor in the area who has been attempting Castle Peak 100K for the last few years, raising money for local charities along the way. He made the cutoff by seconds. He had a strong why. I did not.
While happy to be finished, I could tell that something was not quite right. It was a bummer that wouldn’t fully set in until the next day.
The thing that really nagged me was that I was in great shape after 32-33 miles. And I had already been through the most difficult aspects of the race. The rest was runnable, and I still believe I would have finished well within cutoff had I been allowed to continue.
But those weren’t the rules – and my race was done.
It’s a very different mental experience quitting your own race versus being pulled from it.
I knew I had a while to wait, given that Jourdan and Ray were going to take a while to come in. I sat against a tree, called my wife and talked to her as long as it made sense to do so.
And then I talked with everybody else. Hanging out with a bunch of like-minded individuals can be very healing. I wasn’t really bummed at this point, I was more happy that I was going to get to have dinner with my friends. And we did. Pizza. Beer. And a great time. And a lot of sleep afterwards.
It wasn’t until a day after the race that I felt the significance of getting pulled from the race within my body. I was bummed. Super bummed.
I was bummed because I knew I didn’t give it my best. I didn’t give it my best leading up to the race, and I didn’t give it my best on race day. I allowed very minor issues to drive my thoughts into the negative and then I began exploring the narrative of stopping … of seeking comfort.
It’s often that when I talk about big things as if they are no big deal, that they are a REALLY BIG FUCKING DEAL. I tend to talk-down big things, maybe to ease the future pain from failure if they don’t work out.
But that’s the thing. It doesn’t ease the pain. It doesn’t protect anything. This strategy doesn’t work at all. It’s a farse. It’s a big fucking lie.
Castle Peak was a reminder of how important it is to know thyself. A reminder to consistently check-in with my body as I say things in conversation. How does what I’m saying make me feel? How do I feel about what others are saying in response? And as a result, this is a reminder to practice the inner work of knowing myself so I can more consistently and reliably speak the real truth.
This isn’t the end of the story though. Oh no. After a float on the river with friends the next day, a bit of contemplation and an all-star pacer lined up, I was signed up for my first 100 miler to be run a few months later – the 2021 Rio del Lago 100.