2012 Wasatch Front 100 Race Report: Patience and Strategy

Start of Wasatch. Photo by Lori Burlison.

I ran Wasatch as my second 100 miler back in 2004 — 8 long years ago. A lot has passed since the “salad” days. I only had one child back then — now I have 3. I have a lot more responsibility and a lot less free time. I have to get creative with my training to stay at the volume it requires to race and stay competitive at ultramarathons.  It’s tough sometimes and I lose sleep, but I love running in the mountains and I love this sport. I don’t think I could give it up if I had to.

Wasatch 100 is one of the hard ones, the big dogs. There are a lot of other races that get more recent press because of fat-cat cash purses, but Wasatch, in my book (and many other “old school” ultrarunners that have been around before any of the hype) consider Wasatch as one of the pinnacles. It’s been around since 1980 (I believe the 2nd oldest 100 behind the infamous Western States 100). It’s hard, it’s technical, it’s relentless. 26,882′ of climbing and 26,131′ of downhill — 10,000′ of the descent coming in the last 23 miles! It’s brutal…and beautiful. Just my kind of course.

Since my youngest son is still not at the age where he travels well, my wife and I decided I should “dirtbag” this race and drive solo, sleep at my friends Roch and Catherine’s house in Salt Lake City and bust it out. Zip in, run hard, zip home. No pacer — just Roch as my crew at 3 checkpoints, drop bags and go hard. No pampering — just like this race embodies. That was the plan.

I was super busy the week of the race and only averaged 5.5 hours of sleep the entire week leading up. Phew. I was a little worried about that, but had no choice — life, work and family took precedence over training plans and tapers, so I just rolled with it. I took off for SLC from Bend at 9:30pm on Wednesday night, made it to Eastern Oregon and crashed at a pullout in the desert at 2am. I slept 5 hours, got up at 8am on Thursday and drove the remaining 7.5 hours to Salt Lake in time for the pre-race check in at Sugarhouse Park. I dropped my drop bags, weighed-in, and hung out chatting with old friends.

Karl Meltzer, a good buddy, who has won this race multiple times was there to hang out and talk with some folks he was coaching (he was running Run Rabbit Run 100 the following weekend) and would just be spectator this year. We discussed my final strategy for the race. Remembering how hot it was from 35 to 53 and the fact that I ran too hard here in ’04 and paid the piper the last 25 with dead quads, my plan was to go easy through Lambs Canyon aid (at mile 53) by holding back in the heat of the day and not running any downhills hard until Bear Ass Pass (mile 57), then turn it on up Mill Creek Canyon, Dog Lake, and up to Desolation Lake in the 60s and get as far as possible before turning on lights. If possible, getting to Ant Knoll aid at mile 80 by dark, allowing me to run the extremely technical descent off the high point above Brighton Ski Lodge (Point Supreme) in the daylight. Here you plunge 1,450’ in just 1.7 miles on extremely rocky, rutted single track trail. That was the strategy. The key is sticking to the plan in these things and not getting caught up in racing too early or just generally being a numbskull.

jeff browning before 2012 Wasatch 100

Race morning. Little pre-race sarcasm. Thanks Rocho. Photo by Roch Horton.

Thursday night, I went out to dinner with Roch and Catherine at a local Thai joint and then off to bed at 9:30pm. I was up at 3am to have Roch take me to the bus shuttle in downtown SLC. I got to the start and after some usual pre-race stuff, we were off at 5am sharp and running the rolling 5 miles on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in the pre-dawn darkness. I went out in the lead with two other guys with me. Peter Fain, from Truckee, CA and Adam Lint, from Seattle. We were making small talk and the lower section of the 4,400’ climb to gain the summit of Chinscraper, local George Grygar, joined the group. Soon we were flipping off our headlamps and gaining the ridge line above 9,000’ and cruising along together.

Somewhere before Grobbens Corner I took the lead on some more technical singletrack rollers. I just relaxed and cruised into Frances Peak aid station at mile 18 at 8:18am (4 minutes faster than Jeff Roes’ CR pace). I didn’t feel like I was pushing, but I consciously backed off the pace after that to be safe. A few miles after that aid, George caught up to me and we ran together for a while chatting. He left me on one steep climb and I just settled in to run alone and not push.

Jeff Browning at Mile 24 aid station

Bountiful B Aid Station, mile 24. Photo by Sierra Schneider.

I could see George from time to time on long stretches on the ridge and would time his lead — 3-4 minutes. Not much. I remained calm and just cruised and let the miles slide by through Bountiful B, Sessions and Swallow Rocks aid. I was content to let George lead and knew it was too early to be racing and preferred to be the hunter and not the hunted.

It was starting to warm up when I arrived at Big Mountain aid station at mile 39.4, the first crew stop at 11:59am — 12 minutes off CR pace. Roch was there ready for me. I dropped my empty bottles, weighed in 4 pounds up and walked through the aid station as Roch dowsed me with ice cold water, I chugged a bottle, ate some banana, swapped gel flasks and took off to hit the hottest part of the course, Alexander Ridge.

This section is notoriously the spot where it makes or breaks your race and going too hard through this section can really beat you up. It’s SW facing and exposed and is like a hot pocket on the course. It has a pretty significant hot micro-climate. I went mellow through here, just concentrating on pushing calories, liquid and generally taking care of myself. I really didn’t worry about George’s lead. I wanted to feel good coming into Lambs Canyon. After Alexander Ridge aid, I kept cruising comfortably until finally arriving into Lambs Canyon aid at 53 miles. Rocho was there with an ice cold soaking towel, water to douse me with and a full ice water bottle to drink. I downed water, soaked myself really well and hiked up to the aid station tent to weigh-in at 2:27pm.

I weighed in one pound over and to my surprise found George still in the aid station. He looked a little worked. Noted. I said something to the effect of “hey, man.” At that point, I was still not ready to start racing, I knew we’d be out of the heat soon and just wanted to make sure I ate and drank enough to get myself topped off before leaving Lambs. Rocho and I walked through the aid station swapping out gels, getting my iPod on and letting me wolf down some food. We were still walking under the overpass of I-80 when George came flying by running up the Lambs Canyon Road. I had an inkling to go after him, but took a deep breath and relaxed and reminded myself not to race yet. During this internal conversation, Rocho (the grizzled veteran that he is), echoed my thoughts by saying, “Let him go, Bronco. Not yet. He’s hurting.” I replied, “I know, Roch, still early. I’m chillin’.” Strategy.

Once I got refills situated, I took off up the road (George was already out of sight), and settled in to go easy and let my food digest and all the water absorb I had just enhaled. By the time I hit the trailhead at Lambs Trail a mile and a half up the road, I was feeling pretty darn good. The heat was settling down with the north facing climb up to Bear Ass Pass, so I just settled in transitioning running and hiking up to the top. I got to the top and about halfway down the 1,500’ descent (in 1.8 miles) I came around a switchback and George was 50 meters in front of me. Okay, time to make a move. I took a gel and a Succeed Cap and blew by him. I glanced over my shoulder and he tried to go with  me, but I’d saved my legs and was moving down better than he was and I quickly gapped him. I soon hit Mill Creek Canyon Road and took off up the pavement for the long grind up to Upper Big Water aid at 61.7. I ran 95% of this road with only a few short hike breaks and got in at 4:09pm and was in and out in about a minute and onto the trail before George arrived. Sweet.

As I ran up the climb to Dog Lake I listened for cheering at the aid station below to see how far back he was. I estimated about 3 or 4 minutes. Good, that meant I put about a minute a mile on him on the road. So, I just kept plugging away and was nearing the final push to Dog Lake when I came to the last trail intersection and came to a halt. There was one flag on a big tree on the left and one flag on the ground (obviously pulled and thrown down) in the middle of the intersection. No other flags. Crap. Which way? Think. I couldn’t remember for sure which way. My gut said right, but the flag was on the tree on the left side of the trail before the intersection. So, I headed left up the trail. After about 2-3 minutes of climbing I came to another trail intersection with no flags. Dang, wrong way. I turned on my heels, glanced at my watch, and flew down the trail at 6 minute pace. It took me 1 minute of hauling downhill to get back to the vandalized intersection. I looked back down the trail and saw George in the distance almost up to where I was. Man, all that work for nothing.

I took off uphill running hard to try to get a gap again and, sure enough, saw a couple of flags. Okay, now I’m going the right way. I shook off the detour mentally and concentrated on getting my lead back. I soon hit Dog Lake and started the short descent to Blunder Fork to pick up the climb to Desolation Lake. I was a few hundred meters flying downhill when I came to a screeching halt. Moose, broadside in the trail. Man, can I get a break here?!! He’s right behind me! I assessed the situation. Female. Calf? Don’t see one. I yelled and waved my arms. Nothing. She just stood there chewing and looking at me like “What? You talkin’ to me?” Dog Lake is a high-traffic area and I think this moose was used to seeing people. I kept yelling. Nothing. Two guys on a training run who I’d been leapfrogging with on the climb caught back up to me and I quickly asked for their help. We all started yelling and waving our arms and walking toward her. Me in the back of the pack. She eventually started walking, very slowly, to the left and stopped 10 meters off the trail looking at us — still chewing. Not jumpy AT ALL, unlike the Moose I have encountered in the Bighorns.

Once she moved, I took off, passed the two dudes and flew down the trail trying to get a lead back. I hit the junction and started the climb up to Desolation Lake. About a mile or so before the aid station I had to bail off the trail as I almost got taken out by a downhill mountain biker. All the excitement got me worked up and had to jump off in the bushes for a pit stop. As I was off-trail “admiring the aspens,” George hiked by. Dang. Seriously? Okay, let’s do this.

I got into the aid station less than a minute behind George at 5:30pm. He was still there. I grabbed a 1/4 of a PB&J, two full bottles and bolted out of there with a mouthful and George about 50 meters behind. The course quickly leaves the basin and we started a rugged 800’ climb up to Red Lover’s Ridge at 9,900 feet. I was feeling good here and just pushed the pace on the climb. By the top of the ridge I had increased the gap by at least a minute, so I kept pushing.

I got to Scott’s Tower aid station at mile 70.7 with a 4 minute lead (about a minute a mile faster). I quickly got in and out and headed down the trail and soon the jeep road to the highway that takes you down to Brighton Lodge at 75. I hammered the road and soon Karl came up in his truck and said I had about a 10 minute lead. Good. I was feeling strong. Strategy of holding back early was paying off.

I ran into Brighton with Roch, Catherine and Karl ready outside the lodge with Rocho’s own special chicken soup and my drop bag. I ate, got my Black Diamond lights adjusted, arm warmers, and Patagonia Houdini jacket around my waist and jogged up to the lodge to weigh-in and get out. I didn’t want to waste any daylight. As I was heading out I asked Karl and Roch how long to Point Supreme…it went something like this…

Karl: 48 minutes.
Roch: No, no, 51 minutes. 51 minutes, Bronco.
Me: (in my head) I’m running 48 minutes.

I ran out of Brighton and got hoofin’ it up the 1,660’ climb to the high point of the course at 10,450’. I got up to the high point in exactly 48 minutes. Sorry Roch.

I plunged off the steep, technical downhill at breakneck speed. My goal to get to Ant Knoll aid at 80 miles before dark was panning out. I soon heard some cowbells and was pulling into the aid, 16 minutes from Point Supreme. Giddyup.

After some soup, I flipped on my lights and climbed up to Grunt Pass. At this point, I just kept plugging away in the dark. It was pretty uneventful — besides a face to face with a porcupine right before Pole Line Pass. He puffed out and I had to bushwhack around him. Then, it was the same routine…grunt climbs, rocky and loose downhills…repeat. I soon was climbing out of Pot Bottom and running the ball bearing ATV trail and hitting the pavement to the finish. I crossed the line at Homestead in 19 hrs, 33 minutes for the win. I missed the third fastest time by 2 minutes (Dang that moose). Totally psyched to be the 4th fastest time in 33 years. Now time for some fall rest and relaxation. Giddyup.

Jeff Browning and Mike LeRoux at 2012 Wasatch 100

Mike LeRoux (Grand Slam Finisher) and I hanging out at finish. Awesome triathlete and now...ultrarunner. Photo by Mike LeRoux.

Big shout out to my lovely wife and kids and without their support — I just couldn’t do this. Thanks to the Big Man upstairs for keeping my steps safe. Huge thanks to Rocho and Catherine and their hospitality, crewing expertise and Roch’s course knowledge. He’s a walking encyclopedia. Thanks to Patagonia for the good gear, Ultraspire’s handhelds (love them), Black Diamond lights, First Endurance EFS gel, Rudy Project for the awesome glasses, and FootZone of Bend for everything. And, thanks Bien for throwing down a hard training week at TranRockies 3 weeks out with me…good times, Bandit…Kick Start My Heart!

Gear: Patagonia Cap 1 Jersey and Strider Pro Shorts, Black Diamond Icon headlamps, Rudy Project Zyon glasses, Ultraspire handhelds

Jeff Browning with 2012 Wasatch Winner Trophy

The famous gold mountain goat skull trophy. Photo by Sierra Schneider.

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