Epic Shit by Any Standard

How did I get signed up for an ultra-distance triathlon relay?

While on vacation in Colorado in June 2018, I visited my friend from high school Scott Ridings.  We have a history of enjoying a few cold beers when hanging out together.  It was fun when we were kids and it’s just as fun now that we are old farts. After enjoying a few beers throughout the day, I started telling Scott about a race a friend of mine from Huntsville had organized in Utah.  Scott is an avid cyclist.  He’s completed a few Ironman races, but, it’s been a few years.  He and I have been trying to find an adventure race for us to do together.  When he mentioned it, I told him about Brandon’s race.  He quickly said he thought if he trained for it he could complete a 250-mile bike ride.  I told him that I can do the 100-mile run if he can do the bike.  All we needed is a kayaker.  Scott called a friend and it sounded like we had a relay team.  We ran into the house and told our wives about our decision.  Wonda told Scott’s wife Suma not to worry about it, that when the alcohol wore off we would change our minds.  We never changed our minds.

Team Gumption Trap

Team Gumption Trap

Fast forward a few weeks our kayaker had to cancel due to some medical issues from surgeries.  By this point, I had already told Brandon.  When I told Brandon that our kayaker had dropped, he offered to do the kayak with us.  That’s how Gumption Trap became a team.

Kayak Finish

Kayak Finish

The long course of the triathlon is a 30-mile kayak, 250-mile bike ride, and a 106-mile run.  We set out to complete the long course relay.  We had to make some adjustments mid-stream due to a time restriction enforced by booking a flight out of town on Tuesday afternoon.  I had no choice due to work.  I just changed jobs didn’t have enough PTO to be off for the entire week.  I recommend taking the entire week if you or your team plan to compete in the long course event.

The good news is that the race director, Brandon Mader is very understanding and will do his best to allow competitors to not DNF by dropping down to shorter distances.  In our case, we dropped the bike from the long course to the short course, which is 250 to 138, and, the run was shorted from 106 to 68 miles.  The official run short course distance is 52 miles.  I wanted to run as much as possible so I opted to run the 100k instead of the 52.  Also, Brandon has a 52-mile version of the short course.

Scott on the bike

Scott on the bike

In the end, this is what we completed.

Brandon started kayaking at 7:00 am on Friday morning.  He finished at 5:30 pm.  Total time on the kayak was 10:30:31.  After a 5 minute 29 second transition, Scott started on the bike Friday evening at 5:36 pm.  He finished at 9:17 pm on Saturday night.  Total time on the bike was 27:41:42.  The bike portion had two nights of rest that added up to a total transition of 15:39:18.  I started the run at 12:57 pm Sunday after we realized that we were running short on time.  I finished at 9:43 am on Monday morning.  Total time running was 20:46:48.  Our total time was 74:43:48.  This was a typical 100k for me.  However, this was the first time Scott had ever mountain biked 27 hours.  He successfully completed a few Ironman races, but, I think he found ultra-distance mountain biking to be quite a bit different.  But, I’ll leave that for him to tell.

Before heading out on the run.

Before heading out on the run.

Team Gumption Trap

  • Brandon Mader paddled the Kayak
  • Scott Ridings rode the bike
  • Jerry Abbott ran the run.

 Training

Do more than me.  This may sound like a bitch whining, but, it’s true.  The heat and humidity kicked my ass this summer.  So, I showed up on race day at least 8 pounds heavy and at best, in 60% shape.  Does that mean I DNFd, of course not, it did mean what should have been challenging and fun 100k (68 miles), was challenging and painful.  I still had fun.  But, it hurt more than it has in a few years.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  In this case, I learned that I need to back away from the table and suck-it-up in the heat.

With that said, how much did I train?

  • July: 118 miles with about 13.5k of elevation gain
  • Aug: 209 miles with about 24k of elevation gain
  • Sep: 170 miles with about 20k of elevation gain before the race

Typically, I’ll do 30-50k of elevation gain per month leading up to a race in the mountains.  I rarely run less than 200 per month if there’s a race in my near future.  This summer, the Alabama heat, and humidity won.

Traveling to the race start

The race starts at Lake Powell Utah at Bullfrog Marina.  That’s about a five-hour drive from the Salt Lake City airport.  Wonda and I flew into Salt Lake City.  Brandon and Justyna drove down from Bend, Oregon.  Scott drove from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

From a race perspective, this is my takeaways from traveling to the race.

  1. Someone must drive to the race.  If everyone flies, it’s going to be very challenging to have all the gear required for the race.
  2. Salt Lake City is definitely the closest airport.
Beautify Colors

Beautify Colors

Weather

We had perfect weather.  It was hot, 88-95, for the kayak and the first 100 miles of the bike.  Both the bike and the run course was dry and dusty.  Except for some high winds during the run, we had the same weather every day.  Early morning it felt like it was just above freezing, mid-thirties to low forties.  Each day it warmed up to to a high of 72-95 depending on our altitude.  Between 4,500 ft and 6,000 ft altitude, the temps were very hot, typical high desert weather.  When we moved above 6,000 ft the temps quickly started feeling cooler.

When above 8,500 ft it was very cool, sometimes cold.  On the peaks during the run, it felt like the winds were 25-30 mph.  Overnight, it was cold enough to wear long sleeves and gloves while running.

Sunny and warm

Sunny and warm

Gear

I don’t have all the details for the kayak and bike.  But, I can list the details of the gear used on the run.

  • Garmin Fenix 5
  • Altra Olympus 3.0
  • Compression socks (cheapest ones I can find on Amazon)
  • Nike running shorts.  The good ones with a zip pocket on the hip.
  • A Saucony running shirt.
  • My 2013 finisher shirt from Pinhoti 100.  (long sleeve)
  • Salomon Backpack: ADV SKIN3 12 SET 2018 (blue and white)
  • A buff (off name brand)
  • Mountain Hardware lightweight gloves
  • Petzl reactiv+ headlamp
  • 30spf sunscreen
  • Bike Course

    Bike Course

Race Course

Kayak

Other than Bullfrog Marina, I can’t say much about the kayak.  The marina was very beautiful.  The transition area had a beautify view.  It had some restrooms which are great for getting rid of the last minute jitters.  When the kayaker finishes, he has to carry his kayak up the boat ramp to the transition area.  This is a significant chore.

Brandon beginning the journey to the top of the ramp

Brandon beginning the journey to the top of the ramp

 

Bike

From the transition area at Bullfrog Marina, the biker is on asphalt to the first of many forest service roads on the course.  The crew must follow their biker as long as he is on the asphalt.  Brandon finished the kayak between 5 and 6 pm on Friday.  Scott immediately got on the road once Brandon made it to the top of the ramp.  There was plenty of rolling hills and a few steep climbs the first evening.  Wonda and I drove 25 miles ahead of Scott and set up an aid station.  We took some incredible sunset photos while waiting for Scott to arrive.

Scott stopped at 65 miles before crossing the river and doing the first big climb on the course.

On the second day after about five hours of sleeping, Scott headed out on the bike.  Overnight it was windy and cold.  Wonda and I were very thankful that Scott brought the tents and sleeping bags.  We had 4-5 hours of sleep.  Wonda and I woke up before Scott and started breakfast.  He woke up, ate and left on the bike.  Wonda and I broke down camp and headed out trying to catch him.

Starting out on the bike

Starting out on the bike

Brandon had two concerns for this portion of the course.  His first encounter of the river crossing was in July when it had been raining.  That made him concerned that the river crossing wouldn’t be passable by vehicles.  Since Utah was going through a dry spell, it turned out that crossing the river was easy.  The next concern was the deep sand after you cross the river.  I think that concern is a legitimate concern regardless of the weather.  Anyone driving across the river needs to have a good four-wheel-drive vehicle with high ground clearance.  I warn against attempting to drive through this area with something like a Subaru or SUV that’s not a true off-road vehicle.  You may be ok, but, there’s a chance you’ll get stuck. Scott’s Dodge 2500 diesel didn’t have any issues.  Regardless of the vehicle, you’re driving, be prepared for some challenging terrain.  You will navigate steep climbs, very soft and deep sand, and, deep ruts.

Day two was challenging for Scott.  After climbing for a while, the terrain turned into high desert.  It was hot, dry, dusty, and windy for about ten miles.  The temperatures climbed a significant amount in the afternoon.  While Wonda and I waited for Scott, we did some serious sightseeing.  The views at Capitol Reef Canyons were amazing.  Wonda and I took a bunch of photos and found a shady spot to wait for Scott.  While waiting, Brandon came down the road from the opposite direction riding his bike.  Shortly after Capitol Reef, the course has a long climb.  Brandon and Justyna followed Scott while Wonda and I drove out to town and fueled up the Dodge and grabbed some groceries and lunch.

After refueling and eating some lunch, we found Scott, Justyna, and Brandon on the side of the road.  We brought Scott a hamburger and fries but he opted to not eat it yet.  Brandon and Justyna headed out to the next intersection and Wonda and I followed Scott on the road with our flashers on.  The road section had a good amount of climbing.  By the time Scott made it to the top, he decided he was ready for the hamburger.  We stopped, took some photos and let Scott eat his burger.  According to him, it was one of the best burgers he had ever had.

On the bike

On the bike

After the quick break, we head down to the intersection and Brandon joins Scott for the big climb up the mountain. They started the climb around 5 pm. Wonda, Justyna and I left to go to the next checkpoint that’s close to the highway rest stop.  After dark, I unloaded the ATV and road up the mountain to meet Scott and Brandon as they biked down the mountain to the checkpoint.  We didn’t know it yet, but, that leg was the last leg of the bike.

We decided to set up camp with a plan of riding 112 miles on the third day.  The first part of the bike course has lots of climbing.  Scott was hoping that once he started the steady downhill of the second half of the course he would be able to cover 112 miles in one day.  The following morning after breakfast, Brandon pulled us aside and informed us we were running out of time.  He was unsure if we were going to finish in time for me to catch my flight back to Huntsville.  He pointed out that even though the profile looks like it’s downhill, he didn’t think it would be easy.  Brandon hasn’t ridden the course on a bike, but, he has driven it in a car.

We decided to listen to his concerns and we cut the bike course down to the short course and I started the run that afternoon.  Scott was frustrated and disappointed that he would have to cut it short due to time.  I think he’ll probably go ride the second half to see how long it will take to cover the last 112 miles of the course.  But, in the end, I think we were all happy with the decision to complete the shorter course.  When we arrived at the run start, we learned that the roads that the bike course finished on were closed due to fire.  That means that the last 30 miles of the course might have been closed anyway.

Run

I was ready to run but I was tired.  Crewing Scott had prevented me from sleeping much.  Plus, I wasn’t eating very well.  I did manage to drink plenty of water, so, I was well hydrated. On the one and a half hour drive en route to the run start, I ate a banana, a few oranges, and some potato chips.  It turns out, not eating much was the big mistake I made.

Rolling crew ATV stop

Rolling crew ATV stop

The first 20-25 miles were fine.  I moved slow.  I walked the climbs and ran the downhills and flats slow and easy.  I started feeling some plantar fasciitis pain pretty early during the run.  Justyna and Wonda ran the first 7 miles with me.  Brandon started running with me at mile 7 and ran with me to 25.  It was good that he was with me.  The park service had recovered a road and created a new one.  Thank goodness a few hunters were there to let us know what happened to the road.  During this portion of the run, I was taking many photos.  I realized that this was the only opportunity I would have since the last two-thirds of the race would be in the dark.  Probably the most gnarly part of this section was the ankle deep dust on the road.  It was deep enough that Brandon and I had to stop and empty out the excess dust out of our shoes once we passed the section that had so much powder.

After Brandon stopped, I charged ahead one mile at a time.  It was dark and windy. But, it was great.  The night sky was beautiful and super peaceful.  Even though I couldn’t see the views, I could tell that I was running along a ridgeline.  I could see lights far away down in the canyons next to the roads.  When I looked, it was easy to see where the terrain ended because all I could see was a black void.

Brandon paced me for about 20 miles

Brandon paced me for about 20 miles

By the time I arrived at the top of the last climb, I was suffering from not eating enough before the start and during the first half of the run.  My only nutrition up to this point was drinking Sword and eating Picky Bars.  Any typical race this would have been enough.  However, I realized that I was running out of energy.  Scott was stopping about every three miles to top off my water and offer me some food.  I hadn’t been asking him to make food yet.  Starting at mile 30-35 I changed over to real food.  I started eating Chicken Noodle Soup, Cheese Quesadilla, and, SPAM.  I was reluctant to eat SPAM, but, Scott swore that it would be great and it was.  Finally, at mile 40-45, Scott made a cheese and SPAM quesadilla and I felt great afterward.  Scott says it’s the high sodium content that makes it work so great.  It’s not healthy, but, it was perfect at mile 45 of a 68-mile run.

While running across the ridge I was very surprised to encounter domestic dogs.  Apparently, all the folks trying to live off the grid are living on the mountains in RVs and many keep dogs for security.

The last 23 miles looked like it’s a steady downhill run on the elevation profile.  It’s not.  I climbed a lot.  They weren’t steep climbs, but, they were climbs.  While running down the canyon going to the finish, I passed scores of cattle.  At one point, I thought I was going to start a stampede.  I had to stop and walk for a while to stop scaring the cows.

With 7-8 miles to go, Scott started running and ran to the finish with me.  I was glad he ran with me because it prevented the last section of the run from being super boring.

Incredible colors on the run

Incredible colors on the run

Finally, I finished.  Considering the elevation, the overall time was slow.  But, if you consider the lack of sleep and nutrition leading up to the race, I think I probably did fine.  I was super happy to see Wonda and Justyna running towards me right before the finish.

When I finished we celebrated with Brandon.  After all, this is the first year the event actually happened.  He’s worked so hard to get the permits and map out the course.  He’s done a great job.

Misc Take-Aways

For safety, Brandon provides a SPOT GPS tracker that helps the crew monitor the competitors progress.  It works great.  However, it requires internet access to monitor progress.  Depending on where you’re at on the course, you may not have good internet coverage.

Although Brandon does provide maps and turn-by-turn directions, I used my Garmin GPS watch to navigate the course.  It worked great.  Garmin has done a great job with these watches.  You can really depend on them to keep you on course.  I missed one intersection because I was sleepy.  Before I noticed, I had run a half mile off course.  The watch showed me how far I was off course and told me when I got back on course.  However, it was great having the turn-by-turn directions to fall back on when I needed them.

Summary

Brandon has done an excellent job doing the work he needed to do to put this race together. Getting the permits, driving the course, figuring out what the different course options are based on the terrain and difficulty.  This is a self-supported event because most folks and relay teams that run it will take at least four days.  I suspect most will take five or six days.  Recruiting volunteer coverage on a course spread out over 350 miles is a huge task.  I think Scott and I will help in the future and provide some rolling aid.  However, even with rolling aid, you’re going to have folks that are running or riding for hours alone.

This event is a care package of goodies for the ultra-endurance folks.  It’s not just about kayaking thirty miles, biking 250 miles or running 106 miles.  It’s everything.  Crewing for your team-mates, navigating a course that isn’t marked in the dark, dealing with extreme temperatures, figuring out the logistics for food, fuel, and sleep for everyone and everything.  Sure, if you have dedicated crew and pacers for the entire distance of the event, you’ll probably be able to just focus on the event.  However, most folks aren’t going to have that luxury.  Most folks are going to be participating and crewing.

I’m looking forward to seeing how different folks and teams solve the very challenging problems that must be solved to make this event a successful event.

Photos from the event.