From Bad to Worse

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I’m not saying my wife ran out on me, my Chevy died and I got thrown by a bull. But as if in a country-music song, pretty much everything else went wrong at a trail 100 in Colorado cowboy country.

In the days leading up to the 2017 Run Rabbit Run 100 in the postcardy hamlet of Steamboat Springs, impenetrable haze enveloped the state, thanks to forest fires hundreds of miles away.

“Limit outdoor activity,” forecasters told us. Then again, they never explicitly said 100 milers were out of the question.

A few days before the race, an organizer hiked up a section of the course and posted photos of the singletrack and yellowing foliage. We runners scoured the images for any blue sky poking through.

As other local events—a mountain-bike race and baseball tournament—that weekend were called off, I braced myself, but the fateful cancellation email never came.

Two days before the race, another blaze erupted, only miles from the start. Ashes hovered in the air, alighting on our backs during our pre-race briefing. The air smelled like a campfire.

That night, as I drifted toward dreams in our rental condo, all went oddly still—peculiarly so. Even the buzz of the refrigerator stopped. Minutes later, the head-splitting shrill of the building alarm began. It interpreted a power outage as a problem—maybe even a break-in.

Damn the damage deposit. I ripped the wiring from the battery and staggered back to bed, tossing in the stuffy room. The a/c was naturally out. It was like sitting in a tent at midday, under a stifling sun.

Hundred-miler mornings come too early, and so did this one. The devious course starts by sending runners straight up a ski slope, directly under a gondola line. My clever plan: save a few pounds and head up the trail sans water bottles. My family would meet me at the top of the gondola, at which point I’d get some water, two hugs and an emotional boost.

You can feel crummy standing still or feel crummy moving forward—the choice is yours.

“Hey, the gondolas aren’t running,” noted one runner as we tackled the climb.

“I’m glad I wasn’t counting on seeing my girlfriend up there,” another joked. My heart sank like a Bugs Bunny anvil.

The previous night’s blackout had messed up the local power grid, and the gondola stayed still. I hiked past the lifeless gondi station with slumped shoulders, kicking myself. Might I become too dehydrated to recover?

Fortunately, an aid station sat between me and my drop bags. Arriving there, I chugged 40 ounces of cola and water like a college kid at a kegger, and waddled on.

Finally, I reached the mile-11 Long Lake aid station, dove into my drop bag and grabbed my back-up water bottles. Life took a turn for the better—until I face-planted on a long rocky downhill. I lay there, on my belly like a beached whale, taking inventory of potential injuries. Finding only scrapes, I continued.

My day hit a new low at mile 30, a dusty outpost called Cow Camp. Running several south-facing miles through scrub in the heat of the day to get there, I was cooked like a beef brisket. A volunteer observed me with a professional look of concern while I collapsed into a camping chair. Anything I ate threatened to come right back up.

An ultrarunning pal once told me, “You can feel crummy standing still or feel crummy moving forward—the choice is yours.” So as the volunteer was looking away, I quickly rocked upright and started stumbling up a dirt road. Could this day get any worse?

I walked every step up that road, as five runners galloped past. Soon I entered a shady glen of aspens. Slowly, my spirit moseyed toward a happier place. Just a little at first—“Hey, I don’t feel like I’m going to die.” Then, “This place is gorgeous.” At one point, I shocked myself by humming.

The trail peaked out around mile 37, at 1,300 vertical feet above Steamboat Springs. A fire still burned nearby, but the wind had shifted, and smoke no longer surged toward town. Instead, a single rain cloud floated in the eastern sky. The sinking Western sun cast a vibrant rainbow over the course I was destined to wander all night long.

I paused, and stopped dreading the long miles ahead. For a rare few minutes, I felt joy in the moment. Although I cannot say that the remainder of the race was all unicorns (I do think I saw one around 3 a.m.), at least I had a rainbow to hang my dreams of finishing on. That, and the vague hope of getting my damage deposit back.

Garett Graubins finished the 2017 Run Rabbit Run 100, and the rental even returned his deposit.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Trail Runner. To receive great content right to your door, click here.

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