2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning—Part 4: Heaven and Hell

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment in our 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning article series. We published Part 1 after the Western States 100, Part 2 after the Vermont 100, and Part 3 after the Leadville 100. We’ve also published a couple additional articles on the competition at the front of the Grand Slam, post-Leadville and post-Wasatch 100 interviews with Ian Sharman and Nick Clark, and Grand Slam champ Ian Sharman’s report.]

Grand Slam Stats

The 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning is complete! Western States, Vermont, Leadville, Wasatch. Ten weeks. Four hundred miles.

*records scratching, aghast shouting, cats flying everywhere*

I know, right? But 22 folks did just that, finished their personal journeys and set a collective record for the most Grand Slam finishers in a year. In alphabetical order, the 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning finishers are:

  • Dennis Ahern
  • Bob Ayers, Jr.
  • Chris Barnwell
  • Andre Blumberg
  • Dan Brenden
  • Liza Canowitz
  • Jay Donosky
  • Traci Falbo
  • Chihping Fu
  • Stephany Hiller
  • Will Jorgenson
  • Ryan Lund
  • Tim McGargill
  • Abby McQueeney Penamonte
  • Michael Miller
  • Iris Priebe
  • Peter Priolo
  • Brandon Salomon
  • Terry Sentinella
  • Jonathan Shark
  • Ian Sharman
  • Keith Straw

Anytime you put a group of runners together, you have speedsters who emerge at the front. This year’s men’s and women’s champs are Ian Sharman and Abby McQueeney Penamonte. Ian set a new Grand Slam course record, finishing all four races in a combined time of 69:49:38, which is a bit more than four five hours faster than Neal Gorman’s 2010 record. And, Abby, well, Abby’s women’s win was so dominating that she was the second-fastest overall finisher among this year’s slammers. Heck yeah, girl.

Ian Sharman - 2013 Leadville 100 - Outward Bound inbound

Ian cruising 70 miles into Leadville. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Abby finishing Wasatch

Abby finishing Wasatch. Photo: Dan Verdi

Within this bunch of way-out-there folks, there’s a guy who is still many, many steps beyond even them. That’s Dan Brenden. In completing the 2013 Slam, he did so for the, you’ll need both hands to count ’em, eighth time. Yowch, Dan, you have some strong pegs on the bottom half of your body. And Keith Straw finished his third Slam this year, working his way up into the catalog of crazies. (I mean this in the most endearing way!)

Dan Brenden at Vermont

Dan Brenden at Vermont. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

And Andre Blumberg made himself the first Hong Kong-based Grand Slammer this year. That’s some seriously slamming travel in addition to 400 miles of running.

Nine more folks started but couldn’t finish the 2013 Slam. Hats off for laying it all out there and trying, y’all.

And then there was that dude who became the awkward elephant in the room, Nick Clark. He ran all of the four races that compose the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning without being registered for the Grand Slam. What does that make him? A dude who ran a lot of stellar miles this summer, as well.

Nick Clark - 2013 Leadville 100

Nick Clark on the road to a second-place finish at Leadville. Photo: Bryon Powell/iRunFar

The following is a collection of words and photos from the Slammers themselves, a collage marking these 22 folks’ rite of passage into perhaps the niche-iest corner of our niche sport.

Wasatch 100

The Wasatch 100, the fourth and last race of the Grand Slam, doesn’t let the Slammers off easy. In fact, most Slam participants would agree that the Slam saves the hardest race for last. Since the Wasatch’s motto is ‘100 miles of heaven and hell,’ I asked the Slammers where they found heaven and when they went through hell out in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.

Says Chris Barnwell:

Heaven was running the first 64.31 miles of the course. Hell was the 2.4 bonus miles I ran when I missed the turn at ‘Blunder Fork’ due to a missing course marker. When I doubled back, I found Dennis Ahern’s pacer re-marking the fork to make sure that nobody else had missed it. At this point, I had lost nearly an hour and after that I was just in a bad mood. I knew I was going to finish even if I walked it in but I was still frustrated with the loss of an hour.

Explains Liza Canowitz:

Wasatch was the toughest course of the Slam and, by far, the hardest trail that I have ever experienced. The trail’s creator has to be a masochist.
Wasatch has the most beautiful vistas, overlooking mountains, lakes, and cities. You feel like you’re at the top of the world looking down. Heaven was sitting on a mountaintop, gazing over the green range as I watched the sun rise. It was fantastic. For a moment, my pain was washed away by the beauty of the dancing colors of the sunrise on the mountains.
I entered hell many times on the course… every time I ran down a steep mountain slope.  The downhills were very steep and were mostly singletrack. My foot barely fit in the angled trail. There were rocks that varied in size from golf balls to baseballs that made your shoes jam into your toes and your quads scream. The downhills were my hell.
Adds Mike Miller:
Wasatch, like the rest of the Slam, was pretty much all Heaven to me. We are so blessed to be able to have these experiences, how could anything temper that for too long? This said, I did have a Hell moment. I went into Wasatch hanging on to some cold funk. With the midday heat, I hit Lambs Canyon 15 pounds down and a big mess. The look of worry in my wife’s face was not good. Knowing that I was causing that concern was surely my Hell moment.
And, from Pete Priolo:
The heaven was definitely the scenery, but also the fact that all of us that survived through Leadville finished the last race and successfully
completed the Slam. That was our collective goal going into Wasatch, and we successfully executed it. :) The hell? The Dive and Plunge. Well, how about the last 25 insane miles of the course. I probably fell down about 10 times in the last quarter of the race alone.
The words of Ian Sharman:
Around mile 60, I was having fun with my pacer, Aaron Keller, and just jogging and chatting while we took in some beautiful views from a ridgeline. I knew it would be a short-lived moment of feeling good and being able to enjoy the scenery made it more special.

Hell was definitely the long section without an aid station from 82 to 92 miles as it was pitch black and the terrain was the hardest of the day, technical and unrelenting in terms of steep climbs and descents. I just wanted it all to be over and was feeling nauseated from the altitude plus dizzy and wasted. I felt like I crawled through that section yet it seems everyone else did, too.

Ian Sharman - 2013 Wasatch 100

Ian high up on the Wasatch 100 course. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Traci Falbo says:

The only things that were heaven about the Wasatch course were the views, the great volunteers, the popsicles, and the finish line. Hell was pretty much the entire course.

From Andre Blumberg:

Among the four Grand Slam courses, Wasatch is definitely my favourite. Wasatch has some amazing views, especially in the first half. Running along the ridges of the Wasatch Mountains is something special. Being one of the harder 100 milers with a lot of technical sections, of course the ‘hell’ part came in regularly as well, but I still enjoyed that as part of the journey.

From Ryan Lund:

Heaven—without a doubt, the finish and seeing my beautiful girls and wife. They have been great cheerleaders during this whole process. A distant second was the views just after Chinscraper, they were amazing.

Hell—Well, that was the vomitfest I had near mile 45. I hit the wall hard in the heat of the day. The joke now is that my good friend and pacer, Joelle Vaught, held my hair back. I don’t have much hair and I was wearing a buff so I made life easy on her! She did give me a nice pat on the back and said, “Okay, let’s go!”

Ryan and daughters, Sierra and Aspen at the Wasatch finish line.

Ryan and daughters, Sierra and Aspen at the Wasatch finish line. Photo courtesy of Ryan Lund.

Reflections on the Physicality of the Slam

One could also argue for the applicability of Wasatch’s heaven-and-hell motto to the whole Grand Slam process. I asked the Slammers what they thought of that comparison and about the physicality of the Slam experience in general, and here’s how they answered.

From Abby McQueeney Penamonte:

My goal going into the Grand Slam was to race each race with as much heart and legs as the previous. I didn’t just want to finish the Slam, I wanted to test my physical, mental, and nutritional limits and push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of.

I went into Western simply repeating this phrase [from my coach, Nick Clark], “run your own race and the time will take care of itself.” I always dream of my races and crossing the finish line. However, I never dreamed of placing in the top 10 and running 22:36!

Vermont was the toughest race for me. My legs felt off from mile three, and it was nothing but a sufferfest. I never had to fight so hard to finish a race. I somehow managed to PR, although I am not sure my efforts there deserved a PR. I did the walk of shame the last 11 miles. I hated everything about the Vermont course–I was so uninspired by the country roads–and I hated everything about myself over these 100 miles. However, I learned the most from this experience. One of the lessons I took away is that things really couldn’t get much worse, and if they did, I knew exactly how to fight through.

Leadville turned out to be an incredible race for me. I went in with no expectations other than avoiding the dreaded walk of shame, and came out a sub-25, big-buckle finisher!

But, like the others, that post-race high was short lived. I felt unprepared going into Wasatch and not recovered. I remember being so anxious, wondering how my legs would work and how uncomfortable these 100 miles would be. Somehow Nick assured me and convinced me that I would get the job done. His advice is simple, but makes me feel at ease, “All you have to do is run (albeit, for a really long time).”

Tim McGargill:

The heavens were bestowed by being able to share this journey with my friends and family. We have lifelong memories that we are still forming. The bonds that were tested and strengthened made all the pain worth it. The pain it took to drill into the epicenter of my character was a temporary feeling of hell that was a necessary ‘evil’ to find out what I am made of. The ability to embrace the self-inflicting pain was difficult to do, but I am a better person for learning this.

Tim McGargill and his crew before Wasatch

Tim McGargill and his crew before Wasatch. Photo: Maureen McGargill

And, Pete Priolo:

Heaven was the successful completion of each leg. I honestly thought I was somehow not going to complete the entire Slam. Each finish represented buying more time to stay in the Slam. So each finish was heaven.

Hell? The flight back after three of the four races, and the sleepy car trip back on the fourth. I needed to elevate my legs after each race, and the planes made it impossible to do so. I had some painful trips back home.

Mike Miller:

I remember thinking in the middle of the night at Western that I was hotter than I was at Badwater last year.
Michael Miller with a wet head and a popsicle staying cool at States

Michael Miller with a wet head and a popsicle staying cool at States. Photo courtesy of Michael Miller.

Liza Canowitz:
With respect to the Grand Slam, I experienced no hell during the summer. I decided early on that I wouldn’t race any of the events, just take them casually and comfortably. There have been no female finishers from Ohio, so I was determined to be smart in my training and running to ensure that I would take home the coveted title.
For me, heaven was being fortunate enough to experience the events, the people, and the beauty of the land in four states. Who else can say that they ran on a singletrack trail, in the dark, with the rattle of rattlesnakes echoing across the canyons of the Sierra Nevadas? Then, a couple of weeks later, I ran in a 100-mile horse race in the rolling hills of Vermont. After that, I went to the highest city in the nation, climbed to 12,600 feet and stood, with a pack of llamas, looking across the Rocky Mountains. It felt like I was running in the sky. Finally, I made it to the grueling Wasatch Mountains and learned how important the camaraderie of my fellow Grand Slammers could be in the fulfillment of a dream. All of this was done in a short 10 weeks.

Chris Barnwell:

Heavens were completing my first 100 miler at Western States, then running sub-24 at Vermont three weeks later, followed by completing the Slam at Wasatch. Hells were getting depleted at Leadville, catching a cold after Leadville, and just Leadville (the race). The town of Leadville could also be considered a Heaven, just not the race.

Ryan Lund:

[At Western States,] temperatures were reported to be greater 115F in the canyons—I lost eight pounds climbing up to Devil’s Thumb. The physician strongly suggested I stick around for 15 minutes to get fluids on board and to cool down. I wisely accepted his advice—this likely saved my race.

[At the Vermont 100,] I went out hard and died like a man. The last 10 miles were a death march and my knees were fried—likely due to wearing neutral shoes all day. I finished in the 21-hour range. A little disappointed, but I got through it and I was really hurting after that one (lack of sleep, going out fast, humidity, neutral shoes for the whole race, eight trips into the woods, etceteras).

[And, at Leadville,] I had a very slow first half. After climbing Hope Pass for the second time, I was having fun on the downhill. I passed over 70 runners during the last 45 miles. Finish time was just over 24 hours. [Also, I] tested the limits of non-sleep. After finishing, my crew and I made it back to camp only to get two hours of sleep so we could tackle the 13-hour drive back to Boise[, Idaho]. More Rock Star please!

The Grand Slam of Good Friendship

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” However applicable to the Grand Slam, that’s not quite the quote I was looking for. What I mean to say is, “Hell is full of musical amateurs” (George Bernard Shaw). Nope, still not right! Mark Twain! I’m trying to quote Mark Twain, “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell–you see, I have friends in both places.”

Perhaps what Twain meant was that, no matter where you are are what you’re doing, the company you keep along the way is bound to enhance your experience. And this certainly seems true for the Grand Slam. When I asked the Slammers about their relationships with each other and with their families, crews, pacers, and random helpers along the way, my did they ever have a lot to say!

Here’s Dennis Ahern:

At States, we came together as a group of individuals who had some Facebook interaction. At Vermont, the bonds of a group with a shared purpose had formed. At Leadville, we relied on each other for the moral support needed to get through a tough race. By Wasatch, we were a group of friends with the understanding that we had got through something pretty tough and remarkable together. Bonds formed that will last a lifetime.
It was an odd feeling as we went our separate ways after Wasatch. For the last two-and-a-half months, we would get together every three or four weeks and after each there was the expectation of seeing everyone. Except now we wouldn’t.
Of course the challenge of the Grand Slam was gratifying. But I think for myself, and I think for some others, the real gift was the people met along the way. Not just the Slammers but crews and pacers and all those who helped in so many ways.
Dennis Ahern at Vermont

Dennis Ahern at Vermont. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Keith Straw’s thoughts:

Without a doubt, this was my most fun and ‘bonding’ Slam out of the three I’ve done. Traci [Falbo] was a big factor in that. She got me out of my introverted shell and had me connect with folks. Of course, the rest of that bonding was due to the wonderful friendship shown by you all.

That’s it. Love you all. No more slush from me.
Keith Straw at Vermont

Keith Straw at Vermont. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Ian Sharman said:

I went into the Slam with the expectation of running a lot with Nick Clark and Nick Pedatella and certainly spent a lot of miles with Clarky. Luckily I got to run with Nick P. early on at Leadville, too, and it was great how supportive both of these guys were as well as the other Slammers. Clarky and myself ended up battling back and forth in every race, which will give me lasting memories but at no point did I want him to fail or to have a bad race, just that I wanted to be ahead of him. I think that’s one of the key differences between our sport and many others–it’s not zero sum and all finishers can get so much out of their racing and want their friends and rivals to have good runs too.
From Michael Miller:
Over the course of the Slam, my hugs total was higher than my miles-ran total. This is why I run.
The words of Liza Canowitz:

My family consists of my three children, ages nine, eight, and five. I missed many sports games and family gatherings this summer for the races. I knew that if I had to miss a kid’s baseball or soccer game, I’d better make it worthwhile. Quitting was not an option.

Tim McGargill:

The phrase, ‘It takes a village,’ was a theme for 2013. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a great network. At the core of it was my crew and pacers who assumed year-round duty serving as training partners and doing everything in their power to help me succeed. Other critical components involved my family’s unconditional love and support, my mentor’s guidance, and close friends in and out of running that balance out life. It is only through these shared experiences that I can cherish these memories.

Ryan Lund says:

[At Western States,] the track and the finish line running with my pacers, friends, and my wife… something I will never forget.

[At Vermont,] signs from my girls were posted at various aid stations. My wife and kids could not make this race so they made awesome posters with pictures on them and sent them to the race director. Needless to say, when I saw the posters posted out on the course—it sparked various emotions. [Vermont also had] some of the hardest working volunteers I have ever seen. The cook in the medical tent was amazing. I am willing to bet she was up for 30 hours straight catering to every need of every runner. She is just one of many of the volunteers that come to mind. Also, Dennis Ahern and I had the great opportunity to pick-up local pacers that put us up in their own homes. Dennis’s pacer also invited us over following the race to his daughter’s birthday party. It does not get much nicer than that.

[At Leadville,] it was a lot of fun to have an out-and-back course to see fellow Slammers and friends along the way. There were plenty of high fives and words of encouragement. No one was going to skate through this one!

Ryan Lund sign at Vermont

Ryan’s support team at Vermont. Photo courtesy of Ryan Lund.

Abby McQueeney Penamonte says:

What made this season even more unique is that I was coached/mentored by Nick Clark (yes, ultra stud Nick Clark). I reached out to Nick after my season last year. I wanted to be a better runner but needed more coaching and guidance. Nick is an amazing athlete; his running resume speaks for itself and I surely don’t have to remind anyone of his incredible endurance, speed, and consistent top-10 placing. Nick has helped transform me into the runner and racer that I am today. He constantly supported and encouraged me, shared his knowledge and experience, and really believed in me (even when I didn’t)!

My husband, Dan Verdi, has been my crew both on and off the trails. I don’t know how he has the patience or strength to take care of me physically and mentally during these races (and at home), but he is outstanding! The most remarkable thing about Dan is that when I see him at an aid station, I gain strength. My most powerful memory of this summer was at mile 75 at Leadville. I was coming off a very rough stretch and into the Fish Hatchery Aid Station. I looked into Dan’s eyes, and told him that I felt terrible and that I wanted to throw up. Dan stayed completely calm and simply said, “It’s okay, you’re just having a rough patch. It’ll pass.” I needed to hear that from him. And that rough patch did pass. He later told me that he knew I would turn things around. He had complete faith in me, despite me questioning my own sanity. Dan knows me better than I know myself sometimes.

Abby and Nick after Wasatch

Abby and Nick after Wasatch. Photo: Dan Verdi

From Andre Blumberg:

My wife was stellar in terms of support and having had to make a lot of sacrifices given extensive training and preparation on my part. She joined me for three of the four races and crewed for me. The other positive takeway was the support received by race directors and their teams and the countless volunteers at aid stations. The support at Western States for example, by ultra runners for ultra runners at each aid station was something that I had never experienced anywhere and was truly outstanding. I also had an immensely important mental support network by many followers and friends back in the Asia Pacific. Knowing they would virtually cheer me on and follow my race progress often gave me the extra needed willpower to overcome low points during the races.

Game face on for Andre Blumberg (with crew Kevin Chan) at Western States 100 Michigan Bluff after a very hot day

Game face on for Andre Blumberg (with crew Kevin Chan) at Western States. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Final, Quirky Thoughts

We all know, being a member of this tribe of humans called trail and ultrarunners, that we’re a quirky bunch that likes to do quirky things. It’s best, I think to embrace our uniqueness and goofiness. These last quips from some of 2013’s 22 Slammers just didn’t fit anywhere else in this post but are some great insight into what makes these creatures tick.

Dennis Ahern:

I am adept at putting on a public face. My wife’s friends who may not know me well have said, “You must laugh all the time.” And she tells them at home I just retreat into my own little world. Which is largely true. I am self employed as a cabinet maker, furniture maker, and wood worker, have no employees and spend most of my time in my shop in blissful isolation. I absolutely love to be around interesting people (please… for God’s sake let’s not go on about the weather) but I work, train, and go on adventures mostly on my own. I had pacers and crew at the Grand Slam largely because friends wanted to participate and help. Glad to have ’em, loved having them, too. But a tiny bit of talk about planning just set my teeth on edge. Can’t we just run? My near-complete mania with self reliance is a big reason why I do well in ultra-endurance events. But when people ask what the secret of doing well at ultra events is, I feel bad to give the answer, “misanthropy.”  Instead I tell them to read Dean Karnazes’ books.

From Pete Priolo:

The Grand Slam brought home the fact that with enough willpower, anything can be accomplished, no matter how difficult it might seem in the beginning.

Liza Canowitz says:

The Grand Slam showed me the enormity of the human spirit. At Vermont, I gave water and food to a man that was going through a really rough time. In return, at the next aid station, a runner gave me lube for my blistered feet. These selfless acts are often found on the trails. Ultrarunners want to see others succeed. I’ve discovered that ultras are not about time, they’re about the experience.

According to Andre Blumberg:

The Grand Slam has been a dream for me for four years. I had read about it and said, “one day I will do this.” At the time, I was 65 pounds overweight and not even a runner. So within four years from the couch to the Grand Slam has certainly left its marks. I feel more confident as a result to take up a challenge that just seems to be too big to begin with. It also strengthened my mental focus, tenacity, and ability to go through temporary adversity, pain, and discomfort to achieve the target and ultimate goal.

Andre Blumberg relieved after finishing Wasatch as the last of the four Grand Slam races.

Andre Blumberg relieved after finishing Wasatch. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.