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You know, you’re sick, and now you’ve infected our children, said my wife the doctor. She was looking at our son, 5, and daughter, 4, who had dressed themselves for a run around the block with Daddy. Both were wearing fanny packs with water bottles and each clutched a pack of GU and a flashlight.
My wife’s diagnosis was not unfounded. I was halfway through my attempt at completing the Grand Slam, four 100-mile trail races done in one summer: Old Dominion in Virginia, Western States in Northern California, Leadville in Colorado and Wasatch Front in Utah. Endless hours of training, blisters, fatigue, nausea, sleep deprivation, muscle cramps, travel logistics and juggling work and family, all compressed into 13 weeks, 400 miles and 61,110 feet of climbing.
To most people, that’s about as enticing as bobbing for piranha in a bucket of muddy water. And all of this just for the sake of the Grand Slam trophy, an overdone bronze eagle statuette, known affectionately to ultramarathoners as Big Bird.
The roots of the Slam go back to 1974 when Gordon Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame for the 100-mile Tevis Cup equestrian race, and he went to Plan B. Disbelieving organizers allowed him to run the course, which he finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes. Thus the Western States Endurance Run was born as Ainsleigh established in one fell swoop that running 100 miles was possible, that a sub-24-hour finish was special and that a cowboy style belt buckle (the Tevis Cup award) was an excellent prize.
By 1983, the three other Grand Slam 100-milers were established, and it only took three more years for someone, namely Thomas Green, to run all four in one summer. Since 1988, the Vermont Trail 100 has been an allowable substitution for Old Dominion. Purists claim it’s not a true Slam, based on historical significance, but I think it is.
Having won the 1998 Western States entry lottery after two years of disappointment, I decided to try the Slam. I was in good company, too, with a record 36 other running fools in the hunt for Big Bird. The obvious question posed by my wife and friends was “Why?” I thought I knew, but didn’t truly understand myself until tackling 400 miles of trails, trials and tribulations.
Old Dominion: Miles 1-100
Fellow Slam wannabe Neil Hewitt and I decided on a DFL (dead f#@%ing last) start, followed by a methodical pace to ensure a sub-24-hour finish and our belt buckle prize. Rob Youngren showed up with purple hair and matching attire and fingernails, a theme he repeated throughout the Slam with a different hair color for each race.
Run through the Massanutten Mountains of northern Virginia, Old Dominion has a distinctly military flair. Distances are measured to the hundredth of a mile and pacers are strictly prohibited. In most other 100-milers, pacers accompany racers at later stages in the race, keeping them on track, offering company and perhaps staving off the inevitable dementia.
Several hours into the Old Dominion, we passed a pack of three Marines. A crisp “100” was shaved into the backs of their heads, inspiring me to ask Neil, “If they don’t finish, is it just castration or do they go for the firing squad?” Dementia was certainly setting in, but we battled it and finished together in 23:10:33, holding hands for a tie.
For the next few days, I had to get on all fours to go up the stairs, much to the delight of my kids, who thought I just wanted to play “horsey.” By two weeks out, I was running well and champing at the bit. “Bring on your damn Slam,” I thought with renewed vigor.
Photo by Paul B. Richer.
Western States: Miles 101-200
Of all the 100-milers, Western States Endruance Run draws the biggest crowds and the biggest names. Tim Twietmeier, Ann Trason, Mike Morton, Eric Clifton, Dan Barger and Janice Anderson are among the ultra stars who have made a name for themselves in this race. Youngren made himself noticed with bleached blond hair and painted toenails. I was only 19 days out from my last 100-miler, but felt surprisingly great.
Almost completely on trail, the course starts with a grueling 2,500-foot climb in four miles as it meanders toward Immigrant Pass. Then it heads through thick forests and a series of famous canyons with steep climbs, where temperatures usually top 110 degrees. This year, though, Miles 4 through 22 were run through deep snow – not the fluffy, powdery stuff, but the frozen, razor-sharp kind. Despite repeated falls, I suffered only scrapes and bruises.
At the Mile 34 medical check, I keeled to starboard trying to stand on the scale. Medical director Mike Ashcraft, wearing a silver, sub-24-hour Western States finisher’s buckle, stabilized me on the scale and declared I was five pounds down from my starting weight. “Son, you better sit for a while and re-hydrate,” he ordered. “A sub-24-hour finish just isn’t in your scope today. You need to relax and readjust your expectations. You’ll post a comfortable 27 ½-hour finish and live to tell about it.”
With all the hubris I could muster, I pointed to my bib number and said, “Remember runner 151. He’ll be collecting his silver buckle tomorrow.” After 55 minutes I was nibbling down pieces of fruit and sipping juice. I wanted to leave. Badly. But a wave of nausea shivered my timbers and I ran to the woods.
Watching Ashcraft approach, I though, “Damn! I can’t stop puking, and he’s going to pull me out.” To my surprise, he said, “Son, you should feel much better now that you’ve vomited. Do you want to try to leave?” I was out of there so fast I must have created a vacuum.
Needless to say, the night was awful. I found out that it is indeed possible to fall asleep while running. I was hallucinating, too. Or possibly dreaming – it was hard to tell. I battled in vain for 70 miles in the quest for the silver buckle. But Ashcraft was right; it wasn’t in the cards. I relaxed and finished within 15 minutes of his prediction. It was my worst 100-mile showing ever, yet I was thrilled (and very grateful) to still be in the running for the bronze bird.
Leadville: Miles 201-300
I lost my 100-mile virginity at Leadville in 1996, and for that reason it will always be a very special race for me. Plus, of the four Grand Slam courses, it was the only one I had run before. Billed as “The Race across the Sky,” the course starts and ends in downtown Leadville at 10,142 feet above sea level. Flatlanders get creamed by the altitude, and it didn’t take long before I regretted my career-inspired move from Colorado to Texas.
This old mining town is like few others – no show, no pretense. Virtually the entire community volunteers at the race, and race directors Merilee O’Neal and Ken Chlouber are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. The locals, many of whom have survived through the boom-and-bust saga of the local mining industry, are very supportive of the peculiar ways of endurance athletes.
Chlouber’s pre-race speech is legendary. Dressed head-to-toe in black clothing, his large frame and long, dark hair create an ominous figure. His enormous Leadville 10-time finisher’s buckle speaks volumes. A skilled orator and Colorado state senator, Chlouber works the crowd, thundering, “Are…You…Ready!” The racers go wild, knowing this signals the start of his speech, which is a combination of a pep rally, revival meeting and motivational course.
“Know this,” he begins. “This will hurt. This will be the most pain you have ever voluntarily undertaken. But if you drop out, the pain won’t stop for a year, until you can come back here and make amends. Then the signature line: “You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” The crowd leaves fired up, felling like they can conquer the world. A DNF would mean dishonor.
Pumped by that speech, great weather and familiarity of the course, I managed a 23:43 effort. Youngren ran in metallic greenish-blue hair and green fingernails, and will forever be known by my kids as “the guy with green hair.”
Photo by Paul B. Richer.
Wasatch: Miles 301-400
As we flew into Salt Lake City, I got an excellent view of the snow-covered mountains through which we would run. The course, famous for big mountain climbs, panoramic vistas and abundant big rocks, has been dubbed “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell.” Wanting to be sure things went smoothly, my sister offered to serve as crew, meeting me at various aid stations with dry clothes, hot food and general pampering.
At the start, about 20 of us Slam hopefuls were milling around, looking up the mountain into the darkness. “Big Bird is just 100 miles up that trail,” I told Neil with a degree of irony. Whether we would loft it in celebration or if it would peck our carcasses bloody somewhere up the trail was the only question that remained in this 400-mile odyssey.
Minutes later we were heading up a 4,000-foot climb. I stopped to look back for another runner and saw one of the most memorable views of my Grand Slam. Below, about a hundred runners were coming up the mountain in single file.
In the pre-dawn darkness, the lights of their headlamps looked like a string of live pearls unwinding, dancing and snaking up the mountain. Dust kicked up by the runners diffused the light, imparting a beautiful, muffled effect.
Within the first 18 miles, I had gotten lost, slipped off an embankment and smashed my jaw and left torso. I was doing everything in my power to blow this Grand Slam. Despite the lack of course knowledge and the Leadville finish just 19 days earlier, I had visions of a sub-24-hour Crimson Cheetah award dancing in my head. But by Mile 20 I was already an hour behind the necessary split times and went to Plan B, singing my theme for the race, a la Bobby McFerrin:
“When you’re closing in on the Slam,
About your time you don’t give a damn!
Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”
At the Mile 59 aid station, the temperature had plummeted into the 30s, leaving me shivering and depleted. My sister whipped out a folding chair and, miracle of miracles, a Thermos of steaming espresso and a burrito. “Yuppie ultra-runners of the world unite,” I whooped.
Later, in the wee hours, we heard the ominous howls of coyotes, perhaps with a taste for yuppie ultra-marathoners, tracking us. “You know what they say about coyotes not eating humans?” asked Teresa, my loyal pacer. “Well that only goes for the ones in urban areas. These guys aren’t quite as picky.”
The final stretch was surreal, but surprisingly painless. When I came around the last turn and ran under the banner, the clock read 27:59:50. A platinum-haired Youngredn and Neil, who had started DFL again, arrived shortly thereafter. I was trashed, but sky high on endorphins. The Grand Slam! I had thought the unthinkable, dreamed the impossible, and then gone and done it.
Afterwards, I asked Trason to autograph my racing bib. She had completed the Vermont Slam in a record cumulative time of 79:23:21, winning all four races and setting two course records along the way. Barger completed the traditional Slam in a record 78:46:01, having won Old Dominion and finished in the top 10 in all others. Dan’s record will stand for years, Ann’s for decades. My personal feat, though, will last a lifetime.
So why did I do it? I thought it was an absurdly difficult goal. But the Grand Slam was also a summer-long, transcontinental adventure during which I made many new, lasting friends, and rubbed shoulders with some of the legends of the sport.
But far beyond that, I traversed the inky mountain corridors of night, plunging down into the abyss more than once. I calmly surveyed the wreckage, determined what needed to be done, did it, and ran renewed into the dawning of a brilliant new day. I think about the Slam almost daily. It is a life lesson I will keep with me long after my physical abilities have dimmed.
Tyler Curiel may well be the fastest ultramarathon runner/infections disease and cancer vaccine researcher in Greater Dallas. He competes in the “I work for a living” category.
This article originally appeared in our inaugural issue, Winter 1999-2000.