The sun peered from behind pewter clouds, beaming a summer intensity even though the first few days of autumn had already brought sub-freezing temperatures and an overnight layer of frost.
Floating in a packraft in the middle of the lake, I closed my eyes and listened to the softly rolling waves lapping against the hull. I breathed in the mountain air and reclined a little more, nestling into the warmth of my puffy coat and tipping my face toward the sun. When I opened my eyes, I saw that I’d drifted into a flock of ducks, which took flight upon my unwelcome arrival.
“Sorry, ducks,” I murmured, dipping the paddle back into the water and pointing the raft back towars the shore.
I was on Bull Trout Lake in Idaho’s Boise National Forest, near Stanley, on the final day of an extended road trip from my home base in Bend, Oregon. The trip had started with running the IMTUF 100 Mile in McCall and culminated with my friends’ wedding in Stanley. In between, I camped, explored the area’s lakes and hot springs, and tested the Alpacka Ghost ultralight packraft while letting my legs recover from their 100-mile effort. Today’s outing was my final paddle before packing up and making the six-hour drive back home.
The 2023 IMTUF 100 Mile was my fifth 100-mile finish, with my first being the 2018 Pine to Palm 100 Mile. The memories of my long, slow recovery after that first 100 miler are still sharp. After five days of total rest, I jumped back into daily running and returned to my favorite (read: steep) mountain trails. Five weeks post-race, I attempted a 25-mile run that would have taken me over two mountain summits and included more than 8,000 feet of vertical gain, if I hadn’t bailed from the planned route to a slightly more mellow alternative. I haven’t forgotten how tired I felt that day.
I wasn’t intentionally robbing my body of much-needed recovery time — I just didn’t understand, didn’t have context, and was probably in denial of how much rest I really needed. But my legs felt awful in the two months that followed my first 100 miler. My quadriceps burned with fatigue, my legs resisted quick turnover, and my slow plodding took more effort than I thought it should. I vaguely wondered what was wrong, yet my only answer was to keep running through it.
A few days after this year’s IMTUF 100 Mile, I felt that familiar burning fatigue in my legs as I hiked the Alpacka Ghost packraft up to Boulder Lake, near McCall. However, this time was different — it felt good to move my legs, and I savored the ache as I stretched my muscles. I knew I was being gentle with myself, keeping a meandering pace on a two-mile hike and carrying a pack full of snacks, along with this two-pound packraft and ultralight paddle.
I stopped on a boulder to sit in the sun and eat the sandwich and cookies I’d packed for lunch. As excited as I felt to get to a lake I’d run by twice on the IMTUF 100 Mile course, I was enjoying the rare opportunity to slow down, take my time, and be present with my surroundings. This was my first time using a packraft and I was looking forward to trying a new piece of gear for the first time, figuring out how to set it up and inflate it, and already dreaming of other lakes I wanted to paddle.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t run at all for at least a week, maybe two, and I would prioritize sleep and rest. I would only choose movement that felt good, and I’d use this recovery period to enjoy activities I didn’t have time for during 100-mile training — things like hiking, riding my bike, camping — and, now, packrafting.
I learned the hard way in the past that post-ultra recovery is a personal process that can look different for everyone. Most importantly, it’s something that can’t be rushed or forced. In 2018, I kept trying to run myself back into my normal training load, ignoring all the signs that my body needed more time. I’m lucky that I didn’t get injured or sick. Eventually, the mountains became buried under several feet of snow, and it was only then, with my running volume reduced to a slow trickle, that my legs finally came around.
Finally, Boulder Lake came into view, its surface mostly smooth with a rippled texture like leaded glass. At the far end of the lake was the trail I’d followed four days before, about 13 miles into the IMTUF 100 Mile. However, my eyes kept drifting to the ridgeline above and to my left, at the north end of the lake. I’d traversed this section at mile 85, and even in my delirious state, more than 24 hours into the race, I’d looked down at the lake from that ridge and thought, I should paddle on that lake later this week. During the first 48 hours after the race, when I was mostly sleeping and eating, I mapped several routes on the Gaia app on my phone and ultimately selected Boulder Lake as my first packrafting objective.
After unpacking the Alpacka Ghost next to the water, I discovered that this packraft is easy to set up and takes only a few minutes to inflate using the included inflation bag. Moments later, I was paddling away from the rocky shore and watching the lake bottom drop away, becoming obscured by the lake’s dark blue depths.
As I made my way around the lake, I watched the light shift on the nearby granite peaks as puffy clouds took turns moving in front of the sun. Whenever the sun reemerged, the white granite caught its light and seemed to glow. Patches of burnt red among the hills offered another reminder that autumn had arrived in these mountains.
I paddled until the clouds closed ranks around the sun and the air carried the sharp chill of the impending night. Then I packed up and hiked back to the trailhead, toward a hot meal and many layers of warm, puffy things waiting for me at camp.
The period after an ultra, or any hard effort, can be physically and emotionally difficult and confusing. After mentally focusing on an event and training for months, there’s suddenly an empty abyss on the training calendar.
After 100 milers, I’ve felt listless, uncertain, anxious, and depressed — emotions that have been compounded by deep fatigue. For a goal-driven, slightly type-A individual like myself, this post-race comedown can feel frustrating — and sometimes a little terrifying.
In Stanley, my friends’ wedding day arrived with freezing fog laying like a heavy blanket across the valley. I lingered at camp, snuggled in my camp chair under several layers of puffy coats and blankets, sipping multiple rounds of coffee while reading a few chapters of my book, and turning the pages with clumsy, puffy-mitten-clad fingers.
By the time the fog burned off, I was hiking toward Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes from Iron Creek Trailhead, with the Alpacka Ghost and several pastries from the Stanley Baking Company in my backpack.
As the fog dissipated, the day turned warm. The trailhead was packed with hikers taking advantage of a mild, sunny Saturday. The increasingly shorter, colder autumn days had facilitated consecutive nights of deep sleep for 12 hours at a time, and I was already feeling refreshed from the initial post-race delirium.
At the junction for Alpine Lake, almost no one took the turnoff, instead opting for the bigger and more popular Sawtooth Lake. I chose the less busy trail and found a quiet, emerald lake glistening below a crumbling granite peak, a patch of last season’s snow lingering in the shade at the base of the slope.
I sat on the lakeshore and snacked on a blackberry scone before inflating the packraft. I took my time paddling around the lake, exploring its inlets and slabby granite shores, peering over the hull in search of fish or any indication of the lake’s depth.
I wanted to remain all day at that crystalline green lake, but it was time to go back to the car and get changed for the wedding. After deflating and rolling up the packraft, I dunked in the lake’s brain-freeze-inducing waters. Thoroughly numbed and covered in goosebumps, muscles and spirit feeling shockingly refreshed, I headed back down the trail to celebrate my friends.
As with training and racing, recovery is not a linear process, nor is there a formula or series of steps that guarantee any sort of outcome. I’ve learned over the years from my own experiences and from talking with other runners that this sometimes-uncomfortable post-race period is as much a part of the 100-mile journey as grueling peak weeks and frenetic taper weeks — and I’ve learned to cope with it by embracing it.
One way I do this is to take my time returning to running. That doesn’t just mean taking five, eight, or 10 days off. I’ve learned that I need both a physical and mental break from training, so I wait as long as I can before going for a run — at least a week after running 100 miles — and challenge myself to use the free time to do other things I enjoy, like getting coffee with friends or browsing the local bookstore.
After two or three days of rest, however, my energy starts to return, and I want to get outside and move. Yet, instead of running, I opt for something different. And it turns out, this post-race recovery time is an excellent opportunity to try something new — like packrafting.
Picking up a new activity helps me focus on something that’s not training and lets my body move in a way that’s not running. Plus, it offers a different way to experience nature and be in the mountains, which are part of what I love most about running. I’d been wanting to try both fastpacking and packrafting for years, but I’ve never made the time.
After the IMTUF 100 Mile, I knew I needed a longer break from running. Hiking to lakes with an ultralight packraft provided the chance to give my mind and body time to heal while also curbing the post-race blues by discovering other sources of joy.
The transition from summer to winter happens quickly in mountain regions. In the weeks following my 100 miler, the daytime temperatures in both Idaho and Oregon dropped from the eighties to the forties Fahrenheit and a blanket of snow dusted the high country. The trees have turned brown and have discarded most of their leaves. During this brief window, I got to spend a few weeks hiking to lakes and rivers to paddle on calm water while witnessing the forest’s transition from summer’s green to autumn’s gold, orange, and red.
And when I eventually put my running shoes back on, it wasn’t out of boredom or habit, or any lack of intention. I was simply craving a run.
Call for Comments
- What do you do to recover from a big ultra?
- Have you tried packrafting or any similar activity?