Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wasatch pt. III. Final installment: Race Report

Ah, my second year in a row at Wasatch.  I love this race.  A low key vibe.  Incredible, craggy mountains.  Blue skies.  Great competition.   Funny and helpful volunteers and race directors.  Wasatch is an ultra runners dream.

Leading up to the race I knew my Wasatch goal was aggressive.  Leadville was only 20 days prior and I wanted to hammer a punctilious nail in the Grand Slam record coffin, which left me no choice but to run a sub 21:30.  That’s right.  A sub 21:30.  At Wasatch.  Not an easy task.  Plus, the thought alone of chasing Joe Kulak’s ghost was all too intimidating.

I decided after Leadville to complete all of my race prep work and worrying over running a sub 21:30 as soon as possible so I could attempt to relax and put all thoughts of the race out of my mind.  Fortunately, in many ways that simple strategy worked.

Late Wednesday afternoon I drove from Vail, Colorado, where I have enjoyed summer since Aug 1 dividing my time between a laptop and cell phone, my toolbox and the mountains, to Salt Lake City airport.  Vail is one hell of a place to spend summer.  I live in Washington D.C.  So, summer spoiled I am not.  I scooped up Gaby and Mom at the airport- the essential ingredients to a successful 100 crew- and bolted to the hotel for, first, a round of Mom’s cookies and, second, a night’s sleep.

Friday morning came in a flash and I found myself huddled amongst a hungry pack of runners staring down a dark, formidable trail.  Within moments the race began at a pace I instantly realized was a bit brisk.  I held back and focused on my pace and the trail.  I knew running up the first big climb, beginning within just a few miles, would weed out the hares leaving only a few runners to grunt as loud as they liked rounding over a lonesome Chinscrapper summit.

Up to this point I ran a lot with Matt Hart and Kevin Schilling.  I let them go as I re-grouped after Chinscrapper and soon became reacquainted with Erik Storheim as he appeared from behind.  I enjoyed running with Erik last year at Wasatch and figured I would share many miles of trail with him on this day as well.  I made my way to the first aid station at Francis Peak, mile 18.7, a few minutes under my preferred goal time.  First success of the day and I was pleased.  Gaby and Mom made the hairpin drive through fog up to Francis Peak in order to process my aid stations in the true NASCAR fashion we had delicately planned.  I was in and out of Francis Peak in what felt like seconds.  Success again.

At this point there was a stretch of several minutes between myself, Erik, Matt, Kevin, Jared Campbell and a small pack of front guys including the “Two Nicks” -Nick Clark and Nick Pedatella-, Luke Nelson, Anthony Culpeper and maybe one or two other guys.  I figured I was in the top ten at that point, or somewhere thereabouts, but didn’t really care much.  Mile 19 at Wasatch is no place to benchmark placement.  Besides, my biggest competitor was the clock.  Other than having a fun day and a happy finish, sub 21:30 was all I cared about.  Moreover, based on historical race finish time trends, a sub 21:30 would deliver a top three finish anyway and I knew it.

The next several miles were uneventful, less their scenic beauty and relentless climbs.  The trail was overgrown but the weather was nice and cool.  The trail was muddy but the lack of heat made for exceptional conditions.  Things were clicking; stars aligning.  I saw Jason Koop volunteering at Sessions aid station, mile 28.2.  A quick water re-fill and fist-bumb later and I was back on the trail.  “Brighton” I exclaimed to Jason.  He nodded and smiled.  Jason would pick me up later as a pacer at Brighton.  After sessions came more and more climbing.  The sun cleared from behind the clouds and fortunately the weather remained cool.  It was a glorious day.  Finally, after more miles and a final speedy, curvy descent the trail delivered me to Big Mountain aid station, mile 39.4.  I weighed in, Gaby re-loaded what felt like my Bat-belt and Evan Cestari hitched on for the first of many quality pacing miles.  Evan’s mission was simple: keep me moving quickly all the way to Brighton and get me there in one piece.  Evan’s intuitive nature took hold and we immediately settled in to a chatty, comfortable pace behind Erik Storheim (who else?).  Erik had clearly eaten his Wheaties that morning and it made no sense to push past him.

Along the way to Alexander Ridge Nick Clark appeared out of nowhere from the rear.  The poor guy went off trail.  It didn’t appear to faze him that much as he blew by me and Evan.  We wouldn’t see him again until the finish.  We continued on our pace, navigating the technical trail down to Alexander Ridge aid station, arriving five or six minutes behind on my goal time estimates.  We hurried through the aid station, leaving Erik behind.  We made our way up a long, gradual climb from there, then down to Lambs Canyon aid station with incredible velocity.  We gained back the lost time and picked up an additional 6 or 7 minutes.  We were pumped.  Especially since the trail to Lambs Canyon enjoys a long history of ruining successful Wasatch aspirations.  The ups, the downs, the midday sun, the long stretch without aid, rocks, etc. combine forces and can instantly turn the freshest legs into a situation of destitute, race-ending proportions.

Not long after Lambs we passed Kevin Schilling.  Back spasms forced him out of the race I believe.  A few miles after we passed Kevin we passed Luke Nelson just before entering Millcreek aid station, mile 61.68.  Our transition here, like the others, was flawless.  Gaby and Mom processed us through like a revolving door.  We climbed our way up to Desolation Lake and the summit ridgeline above it.  Evan’s patience equaled his energy as he politely walked most of the way behind me up the climbs.  They.  Never.  Ended.  I reminded myself not to worry, I was on goal pace- I was on Grand Slam record breaking pace- and that I needed to conserve energy as much as possible and not give it away on the climbs.  We reached the ridgeline very happy runners.  We were happy that the big climb was over (for the moment).  That the most beautiful section of daylight trail we had seen all day was upon us.  And that we could soon see Brighton ski lifts down valley.  I blew through Scotts Pass aid station without breaking stride.  Evan re-filled his bottle, caught back up and we descended our way to Brighton.
Sun had all but set as we made our way into the Brighton aid station, mile 75.61.  After a few minutes of Dance Revolution with a finicky digital scale Gaby, Mom, Evan, Rebecca (Evan’s girlfriend) and my new pacer, Jason, got me fed, layered up and back out the door.  It was cold all of the sudden.  The sun had set and the temperature plummeted.   The climb up Catherine’s Pass was the same as last year: harder than I could handle.  I gasped for air as we neared the summit and prayed for secure foot purchase with each step. I learned the next day it was also on the climb up Catherine’s that I had passed Nick Padetella. He went off trail temporarily as I understand it and I must have slipped by him.

After summiting Catherine’s the first of many long, steep, vicious descents was presented.  Ant Knolls aid station was another in-er and out-er- less than a minute.  The nasty climb out of Ant Knolls once again left me compromised.  It is just so hard.  And running this section at night no less.  Jason kept us going at a great pace as my energy levels picked up more and more once we hit flat to rolling ground.  We powered the climbs ahead and bombed the down hills.  All I could think about was sub 21:30 and Jason assured me our pace was on target.
We blew by Anthony Culpeper on a steep descent on the way to Pot Bottom, mile 93, and I almost felt bad since I figured we kicked up a tremendous dust screen in our wake.  Pot Bottom seemed to take forever to reach.  As moments ticked by and we did not reach Pot Bottom I began to seriously wonder if Joe’s Grand Slam record was slipping away.  Jason pushed the pace hard during these miles and my legs responded in kind.  I slurped on vanilla and chocolate Gu’s like a happy baby and trusted in his selfless pacing.  He wanted to make it as much as I did.  We finally reached Pot Bottom and hauled ass in and out of the tent as quickly as we could.  We had one hour and 35 minutes to cover the remaining 6.87 miles.  Only problem was one final climb remained in our way.

We moved quickly up the climb and began strategizing each stretch ahead of us.  All I remember saying was “yeah, we need to hammer that.”  And all I remember doing was just that, hammering them.  I had absolutely no business descending to Midway, the site of The Homestead and the finish, as quickly as I did.  The technical trail didn’t bother my quads, feet or knees, as I was a stone faced killer on a mission.  “Gorman…c’mon Gorman” Jason instigated.  It worked.  I kept on.  We finally hit the pavement, broke into a 7:30 pace and held it all of the way to the finish line.  21:19:11 was my final time.  A 2nd place finish was mine.  A Grand Slam finish was mine.  The Grand Slam record was mine.  The fastest Wasatch time by a Grand Slam finisher was mine.  What a haul!  It felt great.  Mom, Gaby, Evan, Rebecca, Jason and I celebrated in laughter.  Nick Clark re-appeared to the finish, after his fine 1st place finish in 20:21, to congratulate me.  Nick is such a strong runner, and a very nice and funny guy.

There are so many people I would like to thank for getting me to this point, not including the names I just mentioned above.  Joe Kulak, obviously, for inspiring me by setting an impossibly high bar during his 2003 Grand Slam record setting year.  Russell Gill, my running coach, has been a big part of my Grand Slam success.  He seemed to know all along I was capable of going after Joe’s record time before I realized I could even recover after each race and make it to the next race in one piece.  Beyond that, there are just so many names, much less people I do not even know from the other races, to mention.  Thank you all.  And thanks for reading.


  1. Great race report! I enjoyed reading it. Congrats again, Neal!

  2. Awesome race, had a great time getting you in and out of stations NASCAR style :)

  3. Neal, you are now the reigning combined all-around Grand Slammer. Couldn't one argue that this, indeed, makes you the premier ultra-mega-master-marathon'er in ze world right at zis moment!

  4. Donna, LOL. One could argue that, sure, but they would be wrong!

  5. love your writing! you painted a very suspenseful, beautiful picture of teh day! gaby and mom are a stellar crew, that's for sure! once again, many congratulations! joan

  6. Wow - this was just an inspirational post. Super SUPER cool.