The Back Story
The words were still echoing in my head.
“Have you ever thought about cycling? Mountain biking maybe? I bet you’d be good at it.”
My return to racing following my first Jones Fracture had hit a speed bump, a sizable one in fact, in the form of a second re-fracture of the exact same point in my foot. I actually heard the bone snap the second time, and I got a pretty cool helicopter ride after I managed to crawl myself to a retrieval point on the HURT 100 course in Hawaii. I was there on vacation with my now fiancé in mid-May 2011. Just a few minutes before it all went south again I was actually dreaming about my two biggest races of the year, the Western States 100 and UTMB. I had finished 6th at Western the year before and was anxious to improve upon the result, but I’d always considered a course like UTMB to play more to my strengths as a runner.
“You might not be able to run 100’s anymore. You may not be able to race down mountainous terrain again either. Nothing stresses a foot more than steep downhill running.”
I couldn’t believe I had broken my foot on the HURT course. How was that possible? I had set the course record at the HURT 100 just seventeen months prior, yet somehow I ended up crawling on my hands and knees until I found a hiker with a phone who could call search-and-rescue for me.
“If you’re deciding to forgo surgery for the second time I will support your decision. It is not the decision I would make, but I will support you nonetheless.”
My non-surgery surgeon was a trail runner himself, a fan of the sport, a friend of a friend, and quite simply one of the best in the business at what he did. He worked for a little traveling road show known as The Olympics while they were passing through town in 2010.
“If you don’t give yourself the time to fully heal properly this time we’ll be right back here again, and you’ll have no choice but to have surgery then.”
I knew he was right but it didn’t make it any easier to accept. I was watching my entire year disappear in front of my eyes. I was dealing with an uncertain future, an undetermined recovery time, and the very real possibility that I could end up as a one-hit wonder, that I would never have a chance to fulfill everything inside of me that I desire to achieve in the one sport that I ended up being better than average at.
I wasn’t a runner prior to 2004. Scratch that. I wasn’t an athlete, of any kind, prior to 2004. I found this skill set rather late in life, as I was closing in on 30 years of age. I had only decided to focus 100% on ultra running in 2008, running my first ever 100-mile training week in February of that year and then immediately selling my mountain bike and kayak (from my adventure-racing beginnings) shortly thereafter.
Just two and a half years later, nearing in on the end of 2010, I had managed to accrue a respectable running resume. A handful of 50k wins and a few course records. A win and course record in my first ever 100-miler, the now-defunct Stormy 100. A blow-up, death march to the finish of the 2009 WS for 49th, though I returned one year later to rectify my errors and snag 6th. A course record at the HURT 100, my third ever 100-miler. A Fastest Known Time on British Columbia’s 75k West Coast Trail (bettering a record that had stood for 13 years), a Fastest Known Time on Newfoundland’s 215k East Coast Trail. Things were good. I was dreaming big. I was just finding my footing and starting to figure the sport out a bit.
And then, the speed bumps. I didn’t flinch after the first broken foot, and maybe that was a part of the problem. After something like 110 days on crutches, I basically sprinted from the hospital and started back to training like nothing had ever happened.
“Pain will be your determining factor. If you have pain in your foot, stop, slow down, listen to it.”
The problem was that I didn’t have any pain in my foot. I was listening to my body. I wasn’t doing anything I thought I couldn’t handle. I didn’t know I was playing Russian roulette. I didn’t know.
After the second break and an additional 125 days on crutches, everything was different. My confidence in my own body was shattered.
How would I ever trust my body again? How could I ever trust my foot again? Why hadn’t it hurt? How am I ever going to know that I’m fully healed? How am I ever going to get past this? What am I going to do with myself if I can’t run again?
I first broke my foot on October 25, 2010. I left my walking boot behind, after my second fracture, on October 1, 2011. It was, by far, the longest year of my life.
2012 was rife with the struggles that would and should accompany missing out on over a year of running due to injury. I finished some tough races, but I was nowhere near the runner that I once was and I knew it every time I lined up. I stuck with it, though, continuing to tell myself that consistency and dedication to the end goal would eventually pay off. I had a break-through in December, winning my first race in 32 months. A 50k, but against a really good field of local competitors.
When I left for Hawaii on January 16, it was with one goal and one goal only: Win HURT, break my own course record, be the first person to ever break 20 hours.
The HURT 100
The field at the 2013 HURT 100 was shaping up to be one of the better ones they’d seen. Recent sub-13-hour 100-mile runner Michael Arnstein highlighted a group of speedsters. Perennial front runner Leigh Schmitt was making his first HURT start after missing out in 2011. The back-to-back defending champ Jason Loutitt was of course in attendance. Along with Jason the 2nd place, 4th place, 6th place, and 8th place runners from 2011 were back, Dan Barger, Nick Hollon, Matt Leathers, and Aaron Spurlock. Japanese runner and Born To Run 100 winner Tomokazu Ihara would surely be in the mix, and rounding out the potential front runners was the Mohican 100 winner Chris Calzetta.
I slept surprisingly well the night before the race. I know this only occurs when I’m completely at one and confident with my fitness. Six hours sleep is rare the night before a 100, especially when you’re staying over an hour’s drive away from the starting line, yet I managed very nearly this and popped outta’ bed like I only wish I could on a daily basis. I was anxious to get the show on the road. I’d been working far too hard for far too long not to be over-the-moon excited about finally getting a chance to test my fitness in the distance I feel I was built for, 100 miles.
HURT is a looping course in which you progress in an out-and-back, up-and-down fashion for five 20-mile loops. The course is unrelenting. With 25,000 feet of climbing and descent (or for you math wizards, 5000 feet per loop), there are very few parts of the course where you gain ground on purely horizontal terrain.
What really separates HURT from any other 100, though, is that in the tropical island confines of a forest in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, things can get a little wild. Jurassic Park was filmed just around the corner. The technicality of the course is unmatched and at night the roots appear large enough to swallow a person whole. There are rumors of missing runners from years gone by but RD John Salmonson refuses to confirm… or deny these claims.
As the antithesis to larger 100’s like Western States, a short pre-race speech was all of a sudden followed by a lengthy silence. John has gotten ahead of himself, and he had nearly five minutes of clock time to kill until the 6am start.
“Anyone know any good jokes?”
The humor degraded by the minute and the anxiety rose by the second, and at 6am the conch shell was blown and we were officially off and running. My return to the 100-mile distance, after a two-and-a-half-year layoff, was finally underway.
The start of a 100 is always my favorite moment. After months of preparation and days of stress all that’s left to do is to run. Nothing else in the world matters in that moment except putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying what you’ve trained your mind and body to do.
The first climb of the race comes almost immediately and though there are a few places on the course that are steeper, Hog’s Back usually returns to haunt people in the later laps. I immediately fell into my preferred powerhiking routine and ensured that I was containing my excitement. There was a small group of runners ahead of me which always confirms that I’m starting smart.
Once over Hog’s Back there is a short descent in which I inadvertently and unexpectedly started to catch up to the leaders almost immediately. What I mean by this is that I was really taking it easy on the descent and in my pre-race plan I was prepared to run from behind for up to 80 miles before hopefully moving into the lead for good. My pre-race plan, as it turns out, was out the window before we hit the first aid station.
I was all but being handed the lead by the guys around me, which is not how I know these guys approach their races. Every time I slowed they slowed with me. Every time I attempted to allow someone to pass they simply tucked in behind me. It was slightly unsettling, mostly because in the one-hundred-plus ways I’d dreamed my way through the HURT race, this scenario never unfolded a single time.
A few miles later as we approached the most technical portion of the course, I decided to put in a little surge just to keep everyone on their toes. I gained a gap and as soon as the technicality ceased a little bit I slowed and we all regrouped.
The HURT course goes Start/Finish at The Nature Center (Maikiki), to Paradise Aid Station (Manoa) at mile 7.3, to Nuuanu Aid Station at mile 12.8, to The Nature Center at mile 20. I was first into Paradise, with Nick Hollon and Jason Loutitt immediately behind me. We all had smooth turnarounds and were back out on course in about 60 seconds.
By the time we approached Nuuanu Aid Station we were over two hours into the run and the gap between Nick, Jason, and myself had averaged about 10 feet. Now of course I’m used to there being lead packs of runners and usually much larger ones, but what was different about this is that at times it felt like we were track cyclists. What I mean by that is that every attempt I’d make to allow someone else to lead was instantly met with all of us slowing down together. I wondered how long this could go on for? The answer was about 10 more minutes.
As I had done in 2010, when I was attempting to better what was then Geoff Roes‘ course record, I’d taped all the course-record splits, which were now my own, into all my drop bags. In 2010 I was religious about checking these so as to know where I was in comparison at all times. With the race unfolding the way it was I had forgotten to compare the times at Paradise. At Nuuanu I finally peeked and I was forced to do a double take.
11 minutes up. SHIT.
In approximately 13 miles we were already 11 minutes up on CR pace. I told myself that I pretty much had all day to get back up the climb from Nuuanu and close out my first lap. As I backed off the gas Nick threw in his headphones and started charging up the hill.
Good, now will Jason chase him?
Jason did pass me and he was moving faster than me but didn’t seem like he was in pursuit as much as preferring a higher cadence over the climb itself.
I was running in third and happy about it as I felt like people were finally starting to run their own races. As I cleared the climbing portions of the first loop and started into the final descents I told myself to simply relax and not tax my quads. My strategy for HURT is to take it way easy on my quads through the first two loops. By mile 40 I can be 100% certain that my quads won’t blow and over the final 60 miles of the course I start to charge the descents. As my climbs start to slow my descents speed up and overall it keeps my ‘fade rate’ under control.
With a few miles till the end of lap one I was surprised to find that I was catching Jason again. I ended up passing him and we arrived almost in unison after a first lap time of 3:27, or 13 minutes faster than my first loop just three years prior. The look on RD John’s face, as he sat in his captain’s chair logging times, said it all.
Idiots. All of you. What are you thinking!?
Nick was still there and as we all managed to depart within seconds of each other, I pointed at John.
“I’m not running as stupid as you think I am John!”
He said nothing. I hold the man in near the same regard as I do my own father.
“No, really,” I followed up with.
He didn’t respond verbally. His eyes told the story. It was clear that after his 13 years at the helm he’d seen similar stories unfold before. Run too fast on the first lap and you’ll spend 80 more miles regretting it.
Initially I wasn’t completely certain if I was trying to convince John or myself of what I had said, maybe a bit of both, though as I continued to reassess the first lap in my head I was certain I was on a pace I could maintain.
My thoughts were broken with Nick looking at me and saying, “That was a really stupid first lap we just ran wasn’t it?”
Time would tell but all I could think was if you can’t match it or come very close to it in lap two, then yes, it was a very stupid first lap indeed. I went to work on duplicating it.
As we got into the guts of lap two Jason and I started in on our own race and Nick made the apparent decision to hang back ever so slightly and maybe pick up the pieces a bit later in the race. Jason and I have very different running styles as he likes to run hard up the climbs and I like to run hard down the descents. I powerhike at a decent clip and continually concentrate on energy conservation. Since all aid stations are at the bottom of the hills I would continually pass Jason within a mile or two of our turnaround points. I would arrive to a round of applause and before I could even reach my drop bag there would be a second round of applause for Jason. I’m sure that to anyone following along online via ultralive.net it appeared that Jason and I were running stride for stride together. We actually saw very little of each other during the race other than at the aid stations and as we continually leapfrogged.
Jason passed me on the climb out of Paradise at mile 29. I passed Jason on the descent down into Nuuanu at mile 32. Jason passed me on the climb out of Nuuanu at mile 34, and I closed out lap two right behind him at mile 40.
My second lap time was 3:39. This was acceptable. I wasn’t dying and falling off pace, though the heat was starting to speak to me. Given that so much of my training was in the snow, on snowshoes and Kahtoola MICROspikes, I fully anticipated that even the 28-degree Celsius day would feel much more like 38.
I looked at John and the old (lovable) bastard still had that discerning fatherly look upon his face. The ‘I hope you know what you’re doing because you look pretty stupid to me’ look.
“I’m running a smart race, John!”
Jason started lap three before me, though as I started into my powerhike of Hog’s Back I could see that I was catching him even though he was running a few hundred meters ahead of me up the slope. Minute by minute as we knocked down the climb I shortened the gap one step at a time. I seemed to startle Jason as I finally came up right behind him and he put in a full on surge of a run up and over the final section of the hill.
I stuck to my game plan, realizing that we were running very different races, playing to very different skill sets. The race was on and Jason was gone.
Shortly before the lengthy descent down into Paradise at mile 45 I moved back into the lead again. I hit Paradise and Jason was less than a minute behind me.
As I was heading back up the climb away from Paradise, I had one of my most fun interactions of the race. Something I truly love about HURT is the out-and-back nature of the course. Going into my first running of the race I thought I would loathe such a thing, especially since your immediate competitors can always keep such close tabs on you at all times. What is fantastic though is the camaraderie that comes from the shared suffering, the common pursuit of an uncommon goal, and the all-day-and-night-long exchanges, no matter how brief they may be.
“You smell like poop.”
“So do you.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well maybe you should do something about it.”
“I’m trying but I still have 50 miles left.”
“This can’t be sanitary.”
“No, I know, this sport isn’t very dignified is it?”
“No, is it normal to hallucinate already?”
“Not really, but enjoy it while you can.”
That sort of thing. Small talk.
As I was focusing on my climb out of Paradise at mile 48, Hawaiian-based runner and previous HURT winner Hannah Roberts was bounding down the trail.
“YAY!! Way to go Gary! This has to feel amazing for you right now! Welcome back!”
She had no idea how much that five-second interaction pumped me up. There was such a race going on around me that my focus on the task at hand had overridden my predominant ability to simply appreciate where I was and how I’d gotten there.
Great to be back? IT WAS FU@#KING AMAZING TO BE BACK!
As I worked my way up and over the climb out of Paradise I was surprised that for the first time of the race Jason hadn’t caught and passed me on the uphill portion. I ran down into Nuuanu at mile 53 with absolutely no idea where Jason might be. Of course he was pretty much right behind me as he arrived before I departed. I figured I had about a two-minute lead at that point.
Again on the climb I was surprised to not see Jason. I’ve never known Jason not to run at the very front of a race. It was almost comical how this knowledge seemed to toy with me. Was I outrunning him or was he just hanging back and pacing off of me? Was this a part of his game plan? Is this going to go on all day long?
Once I was on the down side of the trail back to the Start/Finish I knew we’d have our third different end-of-lap leader in three laps, this time it being me of course. I came flying in and Linda [Barton] had all my stuff laid out for me, as she did after each and every loop. I repacked fuel supplies, changed my shirt, and was off.
I glanced at John. He almost, ALMOST, cracked a smile. He was finally a believer.
The Penultimate Lap
Jason came into the aid station just three minutes behind me, and since there’s a very short quarter mile out-and-back at the Start/Finish we each knew right where the other one was. We smiled and cheered each other on, just as we had been doing all day long.
The sun was on its way down as we were now over 11 hours into the race. The race itself, the real race, was just beginning.
The fourth time up Hog’s Back is quite simply torturous. Every footfall consists of stepping up and over tree roots. There are two or three lines you can pick to navigate your way up the slope as it’s about 10 to 15 feet wide throughout. The problem with choice, as in choice of lines, is that it’s like choosing a line at the grocery store, or picking a line while driving across the border. You never really win. There’s always something that goes wrong in your line and inevitably you regret your decision for your entire drive home… not that that’s ever happened to me.
Dammit I’m going to pick the right grocery line next time. I can’t suck at this forever.
What is this border guard on lunch break? Is he just sitting there staring at everyone for shits and giggles?
You can’t win at Hog’s Back. Hog’s Back owns you just a little bit more after each twenty-mile loop. I hate Hog’s Back.
Mile 67.3, 6:28pm, a three-minute lead over Jason, as has been the case for hours on end. It’s dark out and I grab a brand new headlamp. I always put brand new, out-of-the-package batteries into my headlamps for race day. I remember hearing Karl Meltzer mention in a Talk Ultra podcast once that his light died and he didn’t bother to check the batteries before the race.
All I could think was, REALLY KARL! REALLY!! YOU’RE THE BEST IN THE WORLD AT THIS? How in the hell do you win 100-milers in your forties if you can’t bother to check your headlamp batteries before your race? Do you have night vision? Do you just glow in the dark?
I passed Jason while leaving the aid station as I’d had a very efficient turnaround of under a minute. I was about four minutes out of the aid station and all of a sudden my light blinks.
Well that’s weird, I think. Brand new batteries. Oh well, this is the shortest section of the course, I just have to make it about an hour over to Nuuanu and I’ll grab a back-up.
*Blink – Blink – Blink*
*Blink — Blink — Blink*
Holy crap this is happening!
*Blink — Blink — Blink*
We’re going to hit the iceberg aren’t we, Captain!
It’s inevitable now, son. We’re indeed going down.
I had a small Princeton Tec Remix light tucked into my pack as a back-up. The light on my head would glow 200 lumens if it were working. The Remix, at just 83 grams, would still punch out 100 lumens though at a much smaller beam circumference.
Remember your adventure-racing days, Gary. Remember your adventure-racing days. No stopping now. Keep your feet moving.
I popped out the Remix, clicked it on, and the Princeton Tec Apex died completely. The pack I was wearing was tiny and wouldn’t carry the larger lamp comfortably so I wrapped it around my wrist a few times.
Okay, okay, this is good. This will work. Nothing to panic over here. This life raft will hold 50, and thankfully it’s just you here tonight on the SS Minnow so stretch on out and enjoy the ride.
One hour and eight minutes after departing Paradise I came screaming into Nuuanu.
“LIGHTS! LIGHTS! WHERE ARE MY LIGHTS!?”
Well, not exactly, but that’s kind of what was happening in my head as I acquired my drop bag from the always-amazing volunteers on course. I did rip into my Ziploc marked ‘extra’ and was relieved to find that my back-up Apex was ready to go, and the batteries actually worked this time as well. Lucky me.
I managed to get out of Nuuanu and across the river… there’s a river crossing leading into and out of Nuuanu. You simply hop across a dozen large boulders and unless you slip you can stay dry all race long. I was across the river without seeing Jason. That had yet to happen up until mile 73. I cut the corner and managed to get about a full kilometer down the trail before I saw the lamp coming.
Six minutes! I had six minutes. For the first time in almost 14 hours of racing there was a gap of more than three minutes between us.
Umbilical cords are great while you’re in the comforts of the womb but once you are out they need to be severed immediately. It was time to race. It was time to end the race before the last lap began.
I powered up and over the climb out of Nuuanu, known near the top as Five Minute Hill. I pushed up and over the final section of climbing, near where the helicopter had airlifted me out 17 months earlier, and I started bombing down the hills to the Start/Finish. My headlamp was shining bright and I ate up the terrain just as efficiently as I had in broad daylight. I was however absolutely dying to make my one pit stop of the race, but I couldn’t afford to take the chance with so much on the line at that moment in time. I cruised into the aid station at 9:04pm, and I was gone again by 9:05.
Linda had my gear laid out and I had prepacked a final loop backpack so all I did was drop, grab, and go.
I pointed at John and smiled.
“I’ll see you VERY SOON, my friend!”
The Bell Lap
I really wanted to say ‘get your cheque book ready’ as he pays $500 for a CR, but even though I knew he’d laugh if I said it, I just had a bit too much history on the course to put any potential negative or cocky juju out there. I pushed as hard as I could to get over the quarter mile out-and-back section and to disappear into the night before Jason could potentially spot me. I was officially out of sight for no more than 10 seconds before I finally allowed myself that pit stop, and then I popped in my ear buds and cranked up the tunes. You can’t actually tame Hog’s Back but I was distracted enough by the music that it at least felt that way.
Less than 20 miles to go. Is this really going to happen?
Throughout the race you pass runners at regular intervals. I passed a runner near the final pitch of the following climb, before you quickly cross over the road where you can spot Waikiki down one valley and Pearl Harbor down the other. There are a few switchbacks. I peered back down them and saw TWO headlamps. Two headlamps? TWO HEADLAMPS!! That of the runner I’d just passed and someone chasing me?
I had my tunes cranked and could hear very little, but the only thing that made sense here was that Jason was in fact rallying and that he was still right behind me! If he caught me it would be a completely different race to the finish. I knew I had to step it up a notch to prevent that from happening and I grunted and groaned my way into a steady run all the way to the top of the climbing section before unleashing into the descent.
I was NOT going to lose this race. This was too much of a journey for me to sacrifice anything other than being the first man across the line.
I careened into Paradise with ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA where Jason was. That second headlamp had spooked me into thinking he must be right behind me, and my split time from the Start/Finish to Paradise was just minutes slower than it had been a full 20 miles earlier.
As I was rifling through my drop bag in what was surely a mad panic, James Varner of Rainshadow Running came up to me and slapped me on the back.
“You’ve got at least 47 minutes over second place!”
“Jason had to sit down for a bit after his fourth loop. You had 35 minutes on him after 80 miles and he sat down for at least 15 minutes.”
“Holy crap. Thanks, James!”
“YEAH BUDDY! It’s just you versus your course record now!”
I had never experienced anything like this in a race before. For sixteen-and-a-half hours there was a game of chess going on and all of a sudden I had been told that with 12 miles to go I could basically walk it in for the win. I savored the moment and allowed myself to relax, ever so slightly, for the near hour-long climb away from Paradise. Having not seen Jason at all during this out-and-back it was conclusive, as long as I didn’t misstep, I was about to close out my first 100-miler in two-and-a-half years in exactly the way I had dreamed I could.
As I hopped down the trail to Nuuanu I started time checking again and I told myself that I most certainly wanted a time in the 19:30’s. This helped me to regain my focus and close it out quickly. After nearly 40 Hammer gels, three or four Hammer bars, upwards of 40 Endurolytes, and a shit-ton of Coke and watermelon, my stomach was no longer in the mood for race food. There was no tricking it into feeling somewhat satiated. I dreamed of all the food I’d eat after the race, and I cranked up the music in my ears.
There is a song that Linda and I love by a band called Imagine Dragons. As I was no more than 10 minutes away from achieving what some thought would be impossible, what I myself questioned for almost all of 2012, that being a return to the very trails that last broke me and not just running but competing on them again, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning for me.
And I know it’s hard when you’re falling down
And it’s a long way up when you hit the ground
Get up now, get up, get up now.
Lap Times for Gary’s 2013 course-record run versus lap times for his then-course-record 2010 run:
3:27 vs 3:40
3:39 vs 3:42
3:51 vs 4:04
4:07 vs 4:15
4:31 vs 4:31
19:35 vs 20:12
[Editor’s Note: If you haven’t had enough of Gary’s story, we recommend you head on over to Leon Lutz‘s long profile of him, published last December. It’s some more fantastic storytelling.]