Our campsite on Turquoise Lake was just feet from the trail where runners would go by at mile 7 and 93 of the famed out-and-back. When Dan and I got there Friday afternoon, MB was prepping gear and Pace was preparing dinner so we jumped in the water and imagined what it would be like to have to run past this spot twice and not be able to stop and get in.
There was some nervous energy in the air the rest of the evening as we packed up the car and confirmed plans (yes, we’ll bring this much Tailwind to each aid station). But there was also a lot of laughing and joking around before we all went to bed at the moment the sun wasn’t in the sky anymore. Dan and I set our alarm for 2:45 and settled in.
I don’t think any of us slept more than a couple hours and before we knew it, we were all piled into Mike’s Subaru full of gear on our way to the start line. MB specifically wanted a small crew of the three of us. We couldn’t have fit another person in the car anyway with two camp chairs, the huge cooler, two sleeping pads, five gallon water jug, two sleeping bags, five puffy coats, the bag of chips and Oreos, poles, four hydration vests, seven pairs of sneakers, and that stupid box of donuts.
At 4:00am, the gun went off, and at 4:02, we rushed back to the car to get on the road to May Queen – the first aid station. With all the crew cars going to the same place, at the same time, we wanted to be near the front of the line of traffic. The parking at this little campground was a bit of a mess – with people impatiently parking on the side of the road then being forced to move their cars. Pace, our driver for the day, was calm and alert and happily greeted the parking attendant who instructed us to park in the designated area about half a mile away. I hadn’t put my contacts in yet, trying to save my eyes since I knew I’d be wearing them for the next 25+ hours, so I was a bit disoriented in the dark and before I had any coffee yet. We grabbed his three bags of stuff and a camp chair and joined the crowd of people who were creating personal stations their runners. We expected him to be to this spot around 6:15 and we were set up by 5:00 – hurry up and wait is the theme of crewing. By about 5:45, the leaders were making their way through but I could barely recognize anyone in the dark. For the next half hour, we all focused our eyes: is that him? When he rolled in, right around 6:15, I got really nervous. He’s here! Now what?? We swapped a leaking hydration bladder for a different one, took his headlamp and jacket, and that was about it. He left and as we were walking away, I was assessing our performance: Should we have made him eat something? Could he tell we were nervous? We kept saying to each other, it will be easier in the light, we’ll be better once the sun comes up. The sun did come up, replacing the beautiful night sky full of stars, with a bright glow. I put my contacts in and sipped on coffee. We were on our way to the next aid station and I was gaining confidence.
The second aid station, Outward Bound, is the easiest and most convenient for crew to get to. The drive was simple and all the cars park in a huge field next to the tents so we didn’t have to carry our stuff far. It’s also one of the few places with phone service. The sun was up now and it was gorgeous out, though still chilly. We set up (one camp chair, one sleeping pad to sit on in the grass, and food/gear) and knew we had over an hour to chill before we could expect him. This was the most relaxed I think any of us were. Ian Sharman, the eventual winner, was the first one through followed by Camille Herron, who it seemed was on course record pace for the women (she eventually dropped). Now that it was light out, it was fun cheering for the faces I recognized. We were expecting MB around 8:10 or so. With our setup just past the actual aid station, Pace went up the course a bit to watch for him. As I was looking at my phone to try to get an update around 8:30, I glanced up and he was right in front of me. Here’s here – game on! He was in a good mood, smiling and laughing. We switched hydration bladders again, covered him in sunscreen, force fed him a peanut butter oat ball, gave him a hat to wear, and sent him off. Okay, we’re getting the hang of this! We all felt like this was a successful stop.
We made it to Twin Lakes, the next aid station, and actually got a parking spot that wasn’t too far away. We were feeling a little smug at this point. We decided to consolidate bags after realizing that we were carrying a bag around that only had chips and Oreos in it. So now we would have two of his bags instead of three. Wait, where is his clothes/shoes bag? We tore the car apart looking for, what was probably, the most important bag with his extra clothes, socks, and shoes. It was nowhere to be found. Crap. Crew fail. Dan and I took the cooler, chair, and anything else we could carry while Pace rushed back to Outward Bound to try to find it. About thirty minutes later, I got a text from Pace that she had it and I let her know we had plenty of time – the first place person (Anthony Kunkel) just came through. Once Pace was back and Dan had finished running around in circles, we all chilled together in a shady spot, about a quarter mile from the actual aid station. We were entertained by the little things – Pace trying to warm a burrito on the street in the sunlight and Dan, while laying down, trying to direct runners which direction to go. As it was getting close to lunch time, we wanted to get some solid food in here and make sure MB did as well. Eventually, I made my way up to wait for him. He came through around 11:45 and I escorted him down to our spot as multiple people said “Hey Mike!” “Go Mike!” I still don’t know how he knew all of them. We replaced the hydration bladder (again!), covered him in sunscreen, gave him Mountain Dew, pickle juice, and sent him off with a donut and his poles. He sat down for about 30 seconds to re-tie his shoe and overall, this was a very efficient stop. He was still in good spirits. We didn’t tell him about the forgotten bag fiasco. The next place we would see him would be Winfield, mile 50, where I would join him as pacer. Next time we see you, you’ll be halfway done!
We had to walk about a mile back to the car, dragging the heavy cooler and carrying all of our stuff. We weren’t in a hurry, though, because we knew the next section of running, up and over Hope Pass, would be a long one for him. On the drive to Winfield, the longest of the day, I was starting to get worried about my pacing duties. What if Hope Pass is too hard for me? What if my stomach turns after a weird day of eating? What if something happens to him and I have to take care of it? The Winfield aid station is pretty remote but there were tons of people there crewing and ready to start pacing. We set up our station next to a group we had seen a few times already during the day. Their runner was pretty close in pace to MB and it was nice to share some camaraderie with another team. I started getting ready to run with him and filled my vest with more Tailwind and water than I could ever need, emergency snacks, mini first aid kit, jacket, gloves, buff. We were hopeful that he would be in by 3:00pm. As we were waiting, it started to rain and we were all worried what the runners were experiencing up on Hope Pass. By 3:30, he wasn’t there yet and we realized that because this section was taking longer than we expected, we would both need to carry a headlamp. A little after 4:00pm, he came in and we could tell that he was feeling tired. I went with him through the aid station, where we both picked up a few snacks – potatoes in veggie broth for him and chips and noodles for me. He sat down and let us know not to rush him because he had 9 more minutes here. He changed shoes, we put on more sunscreen, he ate some food and drank more Mountain Dew. Eventually, the two of us left together. I really was excited at this point and tried to exaggerate it, hoping he’d feel the positivity.
From where we started together, at mile 50.5 of the race, we had about 4 miles of rolling trail before the start of the steep climb up Hope Pass. This section was really fun – we were chatting about things that had happened in the race so far and we passed a bunch of people. We also got to cheer on all the other runners who were coming down. I could tell Mike was feeling good and was motivated by passing people, which excited me but also made me nervous – I didn’t want to push him too hard on this climb. We got to a fork in the trail and MB stopped to take his poles from me and I was like, oh is it time to climb? Then I looked up to see the steep and rocky trail that would take us to the top of the pass. Gulp. He moved through this treed section really well, still passing people. Where he used poles, I used my hands on my knees to hike the hardest parts. We got in a train of a couple of other runners with their pacers, including our friend Johnny (what are the chances?!), that MB led. This section was so beautiful, but also so hard and all of the racers were really feeling it. MB was starting to feel sick and was having some trouble breathing and I knew I needed to just get him to the Hope Pass Aid Station where he could sit down, settle his lungs, and eat some solid foods.
Up and over the pass, we could see the aid station below and it was incredible. Llamas, used to carry up the supplies, were grazing in the field; there was a fire going and tents set up where hearty volunteers were pouring cups of broth. MB sat down and I gave him veggie broth with noodles, crackers, and a Picky Bar to eat. I didn’t tell him how pale he looked. He was shaking and, even sitting, having trouble breathing at 12,5000 feet. I knew that he needed to get his heart rate down, but I also knew that we needed to keep moving so he could warm up. Every step we would take from here out would get easier as we got off the mountain, and I kept reminding him of that. We continued to move downhill; first slowly with minimal talking, then more quickly in full conversation. I heard him tell another racer that he was coming back to life after the pass, and I couldn’t have been happier to hear him say that out loud. When we finally made it out of the trees, knowing we had only a little over a mile until we reached the Twin Lakes aid station, I let out a whoop, this is awesome! We moved through this flatter grassy section quickly with Mike power-walking so fast that I had to jog to keep up. Just after 12 miles and 4.5 hours together, I delivered him to Pace, Dan, and our enthusiastic friend John at the aid station. I felt like I was on drugs, so exhilarated from running in the dark and the energy of the aid station. I grabbed us both noodles and broth and he ate that and a few more snacks. By this point, he didn’t need sunscreen and he had a bladder that was working for him, so we didn’t have to worry about that. But we did have to get him moving again; he looked a little too comfortable sitting in that chair. He and Dan took off around 9:15pm.
Leaving Twin Lakes to drive to Outward Bound, I was buzzing still, but Pace was tired after a long stretch of anxious waiting in the dark there. She had been working hard leading our crew and wouldn’t be running with Mike until the final segment. That’s when I realized that crew members need to take care of each other too, not just their runner. We got to Outward Bound and knew we would have a couple hours, so we each got into our sleeping bags in the car and tried to rest. Fortunately, we had service here and were able to get updates from the special tracker MB was carrying. Sometime after 1:00am, Pace saw that he was about a mile away. We set up our stuff and within 15 minutes, Dan and Mike were there. I didn’t see them coming in the dark, so it felt like they snuck up on us. Dan announced that they were feeling good and having fun. MB changed into warmer clothes and sat around a heater for a few minutes, while I hovered around Dan, worried about him too. At this point of the race, none of the treats we had been bringing to aid stations (donuts, chips, soda) mattered anymore. They were both getting most of their nutrition from Tailwind in their packs and whatever food they had at aid stations. Pace and I were pleased with how easy that aid station was and that he was still going. This is when I knew that he would finish.
The drive to the final aid station, May Queen, was quiet. He left Outward Bound around 1:45 and we were hoping he would arrive to this last stop by 4:45. Math was getting really hard to do at this point though. We rested in the car again, with my alarm set for 3:45 to get us up and moving. By 4:15, we were set up with a chair, sleeping bag, and Tailwind. We evaluated every pair of headlamps coming toward the aid station hoping for Dan and Mike before we noticed that one headlamp had a red, blinking light in the back and we knew it was them. Dan said they were still doing well and that the Powerlines climb section they just completed was no joke. MB didn’t need much from us at this point. He and Pace were off around 5:30am for the last 13.5 miles.
I had missed Dan during the night and was happy to see him. He filled me in on everything that was happening and I expected to hear horror stories that he just didn’t want to say in front of Mike. But it was all positive – they had fun together and he was so impressed with our friend for continuing to move forward. We packed up and drove back to our campground to unload and clean up before heading into town for the finish. Even though the sun was up now, we were still cold and hesitant to relinquish our coats and hats. I was surprised that I still didn’t feel sleepy, though I did feel very worn down. We drove straight to City on a Hill, the local coffee shop that was filled with crew members and spectators. I was so anxious for a breakfast burrito, for running water to wash my face, and to be indoors for awhile. It was here that I finally could think straight enough to realize I should update our friends: Pace is bringing him home now! Should be done in a couple hours!
Dan and I made our way to the finish line then walked the course about a mile out where we could meet them and join him for the end. The racers were like soldiers coming back from war. As we cheered, the pacers would sometimes respond ‘thanks’ for their runner, too tired to form a word. We finished the journey together with the three of us peeling off just as he stepped onto the red carpet. Handing him a beer signaled that our job as crew was done.
On the drive home, Dan and I shared stories from our own experiences, trying to keep ourselves awake. We both wanted vegetables, to shower, and to sleep. I forced myself not to nap and after being awake for over 40 hours. I fell asleep on the couch around 7pm then put myself to bed a few minutes after that where I slept until 7am. I don’t think any of us could really comprehend the experience at the finish line yesterday. But now that I’m able to reflect on it and have tried to explain it to some coworkers, I can’t even believe what MB and all the other racers did. Even as someone who enjoys running lots of miles in the woods, to continue moving forward for that length of time is unfathomable to me and is the truest test of grit and determination. I would crew and pace again in a heartbeat for the opportunity to help a friend realize how deep they can dig to come out on the other side.