Bear And Back Again: Ty Draney’s 200-Mile Journey
Long before hitting the 50k mark, the runners at this year’s Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run had put in ample work and accumulated enough taxing up-and-down miles to know that they were in the midst of one long October day (or two) in the mountains. It was right around that point in the race that two seasoned trail runners, moving along at a steady sub-24-hour pace, closed in on another runner who had taken advantage of an early-start option to stay ahead of cutoffs. She looked their way, smiled weakly, and uttered something along the lines of, “It could be worse, we could have to turn around at the finish and come back.”
Back in 2008, Leland Barker, the race director of the Bear, had modified the course to its present point-to-point format, sending runners off from Logan, Utah on a wending way to Fish Haven, Idaho, which sits on the banks of Bear Lake. Patagonia-sponsored athlete Ty Draney won the race that year to notch his first ever 100-mile victory.
The Bear had actually been the first hundred he’d ever run, when, as a newbie in 2003, he finished a wide-eyed fourth to Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer, and Leland himself. He’d improved on that finish by moving up one position to a podium spot at the 2006 running before returning for the win two years later.
Somewhere along the line, a plan began to formulate that if he ran it every year from 2008 on, Ty could finish his 10th Bear the year he turned 40. Better at long-distance trail running than simple math, he didn’t initially realize that even if he stuck to the plan, he would need to run the race twice in 2014 to realize that goal.
Ty grew up not all that far north of Bear Lake on a dairy farm in rural Idaho in the shadow of the Caribou Mountains and one of the peaks named for his homesteading great grandfather.
The remoteness of the Draney farm actually warranted a bus ride each morning back across the border into Wyoming to Star Valley High School. He was active year-round in sports with his first love being not running but basketball. As a pesky, defensive-minded two-guard, he started for a state-championship-winning team his senior year.
At a whopping 135 pounds, he even played a little football. As he wryly put it, “I liked it, but it was mostly so I didn’t have to go home and milk. Anything was better than that.”
His high school didn’t have a cross-country program, but Ty did run track in the spring. While claiming he wasn’t actually very fast, he self-effacingly acknowledged being “okay for Wyoming” and he eventually ended up running as a walk-on at an Idaho junior college for a couple of years before transferring to Idaho State University in Pocatello and graduating as a proud Bengal. He didn’t run track at Idaho State, but he still ventured out a couple of times a week to run trails. The year he graduated, he ran his first marathon and promptly swore he’d “never run that far again.”
Many a long-distance athlete has muttered those very same words only to dine on them later and Ty was soon well on his way to that same fate by entering his first trail race, Jackson, Wyoming’s long-lived Cache Creek Trail Run. He loved the challenging 18k test piece and was immediately hooked.
He would really cut his teeth on trails in the Pacific Northwest when he moved his young family (he and his wife Andrea had jumped headlong into parenthood with the arrival of twins Jenna and Kayli during his final year of college) to Tillamook, Oregon in 2000 to take advantage of a chance to teach Spanish at a junior high school. It took a year or two for Ty to get his racing feet beneath him, but his performances began improving and his circle of trail running friends continued to expand.
Ultrarunning may not have been a big deal in Idaho or Wyoming in 2000, but it was huge in Oregon and Washington, much as it is today. At the time, Scott McCoubrey and the famed Seattle Running Company, Ian Torrence, Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, and Krissy Moehl, among many others, called the area home.
Just as the Draney clan seemed to be settling in, time and circumstance did what they sometimes do, nudging the family in unexpected directions. In terms of job opportunities and the money available at the time for teaching positions, the bottom fell out in Tillamook and while Seattle held some allure, it was ultimately a bigger, busier place than Ty and Andrea had in mind for raising the girls. An opportunity arose back in Wyoming and suddenly Ty was headed back to where he had started, Star Valley High School.
The cross-country program that had been missing back in Ty’s day had finally sprung up a few years before his return. He leaped at the opportunity to take over the program in 2004 and has been a devoted, passionate coach ever since. His ‘kids’ have responded and both the boys and girls teams have flourished with the girls winning a state title in 2012, finishing second in 2013, and putting up their strongest ever 1-7 finish at the state meet this year to place third. The boys squad entered the 2014 season as two-time defending state champions and added a third crown just a few weeks ago.
In a school of less than 700 students, nearly 60 enthusiastic athletes ran cross country for Coach Draney this year.
Success isn’t measured in just points scored or wins and losses, especially when you are coaching young men and women and mentoring them on life, not just running. Ty put coaching ahead of his own accomplishments; while he may have been low key about his own athletic feats, it wasn’t lost on his kids that he wasn’t just asking them to put in the work, he was doing the work, too.
Senior Cody Peck stated it this way, “It really was inspiring to have a coach that wouldn’t just yell at you from the sidelines. He would actually come out and run with us and motivate us, actually care about what was going on.”
Echoing that sentiment, fellow senior and cross-country team captain Nic Demler added, “His predominate thing is definitely on being a coach. It definitely makes a difference that he’s out there running with us. He knows what he’s saying. He isn’t just telling us to run faster; he knows what it feels like to run faster and push yourself.”
Home has a funny way of being, well, home and seemingly in the blink of an eye, Ty had been back for a dozen years, a third child, Noah, had been born, and whatever roots had been pried up were now planted firmly back in place.
What about the Bear and that 10-year plan? Injuries, distractions, and life in general have a way of shifting long-term plans, especially those of runners, and the idea had been shelved soon after that win in 2008 when Ty went several years before finally returning to the race in 2012.
Shelved isn’t necessarily gone for good, however, and that 40th birthday was going to come, like it or not. It could be celebrated or lamented, but not ignored. An idea for celebrating the milestone by running the Bear 100 twice, back-to-back, what he would eventually coin the “Double Bear,” somehow took root.
Over the years, Ty had experienced the athletic highs of wins, podium spots, and sponsorships. He had also suffered injury setbacks and known the challenge of trying to maintain a high level of athletic performance while balancing the prioritized responsibilities of husband, father, teacher, and coach.
Ty’s friend, running partner, and fellow Patagonia-sponsored athlete Luke Nelson shared, “I place Ty in a unique group of competitive ultrarunners, and of those he is like the pinnacle of it for me, the group of guys that have full-time jobs, have families, and find that balance. Ty does such an awesome job of incorporating his running into his life and his life into his running. Using the coaching as training, but, more importantly to him, using his ultra experience to coach his kids better.”
At the same time, the rise of social media and a growing interest in ultrarunning and a corresponding increase in marketing dollars from those companies with related product to sell ushered in an era that cast an astonishingly bright light on ambitious athletes and allowed some of Ty’s competitive peers to focus more squarely on training, getting faster, and traveling all over the country and even the world to race.
While he certainly took notice, Ty didn’t change the way he went about things. As he suggested with a tongue-in-cheek smile, “After 15 years, maybe I’m a little jaded, but, the scene or whatever, I just don’t give a rip about that.” Ty quickly added, “At first glance it feels like the sport has evolved exponentially–especially in terms of the money, publicity, and pure number of races offered, but as you dig deeper you can find the original soul of ultra and in the end it is just a bunch of like-minded people pushing their limits in nature.”
Conceived as more than just a pushing of his own limits, his Double Bear endeavor would applaud the support and motivation of his family, his cross-country athletes, and all the people who had helped him get as far as he’d gotten and been so influential in making his life beyond racing so special.
Not to say that he hasn’t retained his competitive fire, but as Ty expressed, “I’m still performance-driven but find more satisfaction in adventure and spending time in the mountains with friends and family.”
If Ty pulled it off, his 200-mile out-and-back on the Bear 100’s point-to-point course wouldn’t mark his ninth and 10th finish of the Bear course. Nor would it be the endurance version of a mid-life crisis, though aging and the passage of time certainly factored into his weighing whether or not to go for it. “I’d had some injury problems and struggled for a bit and, yeah, you start thinking about those things,” he admitted. “My kids are getting older. My daughters, it freaks me out that in another 2.5 years, they’re headed out the door. It’s more those sort of things when you look at it and you go, ‘Time IS of the essence and am I using it how I should? How I want to?’ It turned into a mid-life celebration more than some sort of crisis.”
“This project came full circle with the Bear being Ty’s first 100-mile win and his first 100 miler,” Luke agreed. “It was his family that got him there, sustaining him day-to-day, a critical part of him being able to accomplish that task, that journey.”
The time had come to pull the plan down from the shelf, dust it off, and put it into action. Ty didn’t need the whole world to take note, but he did want to alert his closest friends if only to ensure that he was holding himself accountable. On September 11th, he posted the following notice on his Facebook page:
Wednesday, September 24th at 6 p.m. I will be starting at the Bear 100 finish line in Fish Haven, ID and attempting to complete a double Bear 100. 72 hours to complete 200 mountain miles and nearly 44k of climbing. Am I nervous? Completely. The goal is to have a great time in the mountains to celebrate 40 years of life on this beautiful planet. Special thanks to my friends and family who continue to support and humor my crazy ideas. Also sponsors such as UltrAspire, First Endurance, Black Diamond, and Patagonia. It is not only time to #sufferbetter – it’s time to sufferbest.
Coming from Ty, that is about as theatrical as things get and it was all the more fanfare he bothered to muster, choosing instead to concentrate on final preparations for the project and involving as many people as he could in helping with the celebration.
Running 200 miles at a single shot (more or less) is certainly not unheard of. In fact the mileage has been matched or surpassed at races like Europe’s Tor des Géants and California’s Tahoe 200. Even the ‘double’ approach wasn’t a pure invention, with Ty himself acknowledging respect for and inspiration from Dana Miller and Peter Bakwin for their Double Wasatch and Double Hardrock milestones, respectively. Regardless, it’s a big jump up from 100 miles, still a rare undertaking, and was certainly new territory for Ty.
The cutoff for the Bear 100 is 36 hours. The year he’d won the race, Ty had finished in less than 20 hours. In 2012, bedeviled by some serious stomach issues, he had more or less walked the last 25 miles and still finished in 20:44. He decided it best to tackle the first 100 miles on his own and then come back to Bear Lake as a participant in the race itself rather than starting with everyone else and having to tack the second 100 miles on the back end. Rationing 36 hours to go each direction and 72 hours in total would give Ty time to stop, eat, and sleep as needed. By his own admission, it was doable but not a given. “I knew it would stretch me and be super-hard, but I also knew that, barring doing something really stupid, I could pull it off.”
Peter had taken the same approach at Hardrock back in 2005, doing the first lap solo and then joining the rest of the participants on the second tour. “This just seemed obvious to me,” said Peter. “If you run the race first and then everyone else goes home while you have to soldier on for another lap, well, that just sounds too hard. I hoped to keep up with the mid-packers on my second lap, which I knew would provide much-needed energy and distraction, which it certainly did.”
Ty banked on that same general lift from the other race participants come Friday morning, but he wouldn’t be completely alone on the first hundred either, not when there was a chance to share the experience with friends and family.
He would start out solo, literally crawling under a fence just before 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday to get to where the finish line would stand during the race itself, only to crawl back under it a few minutes later on his journey to the other end of the course. Other than some well wishes from a handful of friends, Ty was on his own until a rendezvous with his crew seven or eight miles later.
Unlike his experience at most races, Ty didn’t need much time to find a rhythm and settle completely into where he was and what he was doing. As he recollected, “From the minute I hit the trailhead it was just ‘boom,’ and I was sucked into the amazing fall colors. I don’t remember having to fight things off, none of the ‘I gotta’ do this for work on Monday’ or ‘There’s this thing coming up’ or any other real-life noise.”
His crew was right where he expected them to be and a couple of the boys from his cross-country team jumped in and started running with him. Throughout the night and the next day, other athletes would join him for sections or crew for him while his friend, Steve Bohrer, took over pacing duties. There were the inevitable extra miles of missed turns including one extended period of bushwhacking, the delay of hesitations on a course not yet marked with race-day flagging, and a couple of short, strategic naps.
There were also other less expected obstacles like the cowboy-driven herd of cattle that clogged a canyon bisected by the trail. Despite politely asking to pass through, Ty and Mitch, another of his cross-country athletes, were met with a stoic “you’re just gonna’ have to wait a while” and they did indeed wait a while, a good 45 minutes, before finally getting a chance to scoot out around without sending cows scattering in all directions.
The hope had been to cover the first 100 miles in around 26 hours to allow for nearly a full night of sleep, but Ty also hadn’t expected to blow off course or run into a cow-herd roadblock. Instead of arriving around 8:00 p.m, Ty made it to Logan closer to 11:30. He’d used up roughly 29.5 hours of the allotted 72 and, after knocking back an Ultragen and grabbing a quick shower, he retired to bed with a 6:00 a.m. start looming large, unsure of whether he really wanted to get back up for the return trip to Bear Lake.
Ty didn’t shy away from revealing he’d gone to bed harboring some real reluctance, thinking, I don’t want to turn around and do this tomorrow. I’m all funned out and I’ve had enough nature for one weekend.
He also knew, of course, that he had a whole other shift of arriving students and athletes that had voluntarily chosen to skip their homecoming weekend to come and take part in their coach’s little adventure. As he recalled, Ty was well aware that those kids were making sacrifices on his behalf and willingly choosing to be there for him over any number of other fun options. “That shut the demons down for me pretty quickly,” he acknowledged. “My family was coming. The kids were coming and part of the reason I’d committed to this was to give them an experience of their very own, so I had to come through on my part. Next thing I knew I was back on the starting line with everybody else, headed back the other direction.”
Different than the day before, Ty would be without a pacer for the first 35 miles, but he wouldn’t be without company. At first, as he struggled just to wake back up and get his legs moving, that company was almost more distracting and unnerving than anything else. The normal early-race laughter and chatter seemed louder than it needed to be and Ty stepped off the trail a couple of times to let groups pass him by before finally realizing that it was his own exhaustion, lack of sleep, and subsequent crankiness that was making him miserable, not over-exuberance on the part of his race mates.
As the sun came up and his legs began to respond, Ty’s spirits improved and he received another big boost about 20 miles into the race when, despite having not expected to see them until later in the day, Ty came upon his crew and family waiting for him at the Leatham Hollow Aid Station with broad smiles and cheers of “Go, Coach!”
Not long after leaving Leatham Hollow, Ty fell into step and struck up a conversation with Gavin McKenzie, fresh off his successful Nolan’s 14 bid, and the two of them pushed each other along, chatting and enjoying each others’ company. It was shortly after putting Cowley Canyon Aid Station behind them, out around mile 30, that they came upon the runner who expressed her relief about not having to run the course twice.
Gavin, recognizing the potential awkwardness, spoke up on Ty’s behalf and clued her in to the fact that one of them was doing just that. “I had to interject and let her know what was going on,” he reported. “This guy is roughly on mile 132 with four hours of sleep over the past couple days and, yes, he was keeping up and passing us!” Knowing a thing or two about pushing through adversity, Gavin offered a tip of the cap, “Whether I was with him at the time or not, if I thought I was tired, I knew I wasn’t even close to what he was dealing with.”
At Right Hand Fork, Ty received another boost with daughter Kayli jumping in as the first pacer of the day.
For the remainder of the race, various cross-country athletes were slated to take their turns while saving the final section for Jenna and one last daddy/daughter leg. The girls had spent seemingly their entire lives crewing and cheering for their father and had taken to joining him on some of his training runs over the last few years, but the Bear would be their first official pacing gigs, making the entire experience that much more special.
Long before that last hand-off, however, Mother Nature decided to throw one final obstacle in the way of a successful Double Bear.
Ty held close to that 24-hour pace through the mid-point of the race, but the “sleep monster” caught up with him by the Tony Grove Aid Station and Ty climbed into the back of the truck and indulged in a 2.5-hour nap. He awoke to the dark of night, pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn’t as stiff or trashed as he feared he might be. Minutes later, back underway but still nearly 50 miles from the finish, Ty witnessed the skies opening up to unleash a steady torrent of rain that soon turned the trails and roads into muddy washes.
Nic Demler was pacing Ty when it began to rain and remembers his coach’s spirits holding up in spite of the “horrible muck that just stuck to the bottom of your shoes.” With a laugh, Nic recalled, “He wasn’t exuberant at the time by any means, but he was still clicking off miles, still talking.” Nic also remembers the guilty feeling at the end of his 14-mile leg when he got to dry off and go to sleep for a bit while Ty just marched back out into the storm.
By the time he finally reached the Ranger Dip Aid Station at mile 92, Ty was feeling pretty raw. “Not physically, as much as emotionally,” Ty divulged. “I see my family and those kids and it’s not like I was upset or in a really bad spot, but I’m trying not to ball my eyes out. Part of it was knowing that I can smell the barn, knowing that I’m going to get it done, and the other part was probably just, emotionally, I’d had enough.”
Despite nearing the end of his reserves and being emotionally spent, Ty, with Jenna’s accompaniment, made great time during those final eight miles and with the noise of so many feelings running through his mind, he braced himself for the likely crescendo when he arrived at the finish line and greeted all of the people waiting for him who had supported him throughout the last few days. Mentally, Ty was trying to figure out how to keep it all together, but his quicker-than-expected pace bought him a little breathing room since the whole crew was actually still at breakfast when he reached the end of the course. He actually stopped just short of the finish line, stunned. “Maybe 3.5 minutes that I stood there until one of the old radio guys goes, ‘You know, son, you have to step over here before we can stop your time.’ I didn’t know what was going on, but, then all of a sudden it was done.”
He had been on his feet for the better part of 2.5 days, having started from where he now stood some 64 hours earlier. With the combination of the Bear’s 22,500 feet of gain and the anything-but-fair weather that had befallen runners, only 167 of some 300 entrants completed the race. Ty’s official finishing time was 28:50:31, not too shabby considering his 100-mile head start.
Luke Nelson had gone about the Bear quite differently than Ty, taking a fighting swing at Christopher Kollar’s stout course record with his early pace, blowing up in the heat of the day, and eventually rallying in time to secure second place. Having finished hours beforehand, Luke was able to enjoy some sleep and return in time to witness Ty reuniting with his crew and family when they returned from breakfast. “The excitement that all of the kids that had paced him or had been involved, you could see it, and it was epic,” Luke reminisced. “Just pulled at the heartstrings because you could see how dedicated they were to him because of his dedication to them.”
He also found his friend just as understated as ever, telling Ty, “This is super incredible, you just did 200 miles!” and receiving in return a “Yeah, it was a pretty long day out and I went pretty slow.” You could hear the bemused grin in Luke’s voice when he said, “I can’t wrap my head around what he did and he just considered it another long couple of days in the mountains. It’s awesome to see how burly he is and he just quietly knocked that out really under the radar.”
Under the radar is just fine by Ty Draney and he seemed genuinely surprised to learn that there was outside interest in his story. It took a bit of an end around to allow those who know him best to toot a horn on his behalf. It came as no surprise to learn that Ty espouses the following quote attributed to David O. McKay: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
He espouses it and he embodies it, taking the lessons that he’s learned and passing them along and sharing them with those he loves. It played a big role in his having involved so many in pacing and crewing for him along the way. “Whatever it is we do in this life, were just making memories,” Ty stated softly. “Hopefully the Double Bear was that for them. It’s those moments, moments of clarity, that I already cherish the most.”
Perhaps it’s fitting to leave the last word on Ty, on the Double Bear, to one of his ‘kids,’ one of the many lives he has touched by returning home. Pressed to encapsulate his feelings regarding his coach and mentor, Nic Demler paused and pondered before offering his thoughts. “It’s hard to articulate. I definitely think his is a story worth telling because he really is an incredible person. He’s got the family life, he’s a teacher, but he also does remarkable things because, well… because he just likes to, I guess. He’s just an incredible guy.”