At 3 a.m. Sunday, Troy Marsh's spirits were strangely high as he hobbled into an aid station at the Upper Big Water parking lot in Mill Creek Canyon Sunday — temperature, 25 degrees. At that point, he had run or hiked 61.5 miles of the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run.
For ultra runners who reach this cold, dark place, it's a time of reckoning— a gut check. Many sign a form here that takes them out of competition, ending the race against the 36-hour cutoff for an official finish.
For those who keep going, it's a long climb to Dog Lake, followed by a steep incline down a rutted, rocky trail, then back up again to the Desolation Lake aid station about five miles away. It gets colder, sometimes windier and more remote, still nearly nine miles away from the 75-mile point at Brighton Lodge — or what some call "the morgue."
Being "dead and buried" in this race doesn't necessarily mean the end.
Marsh, a physical therapist, had twisted his ankle badly after only 10 miles. At the Swallow Rocks aid station at mile 34.75, the Bountiful resident was ready to declare DNF — did not finish. In fact, on a runners-update board at the Lamb's Canyon aid station 18 miles away, Marsh's pacers and crew saw the dreaded DNF by his name.
"It was a miracle," Marsh would say hours later. To his own amazement — after picking up his first pacer at about 11 p.m. Saturday — he was somehow still able to hike steep trails by the light of a half moon and a high-tech headlamp.
Like so many others who actually finish, Marsh found something to keep him going. The reasons for quitting, though, are as varied as the race's terrain.
Many times, the mountains win
Jason Moyer made the trip from his home in Bend, Ore., for the challenge of the Wasatch 100, called by veteran ultra runners as one of the hardest 100-mile races in the country.
The course begins in Kaysville's East Mountain Wilderness Park, elevation 4,880 feet, and ends at Midway and its 5,720-foot elevation. The highest point is known as Point Supreme at about mile 78, at an elevation of 10,450 feet.
If one totals the increase in elevation along the course, finishing runners end up covering 26,800 feet in elevation gain.
The 28-year-old Moyer knows he can finish a 100-miler, with one already behind him. A contractor by trade, he was running Saturday with a work-related injury. But by Lamb's Canyon, his sciatic nerve was giving him great pains —time to DNF.
"I came here to run and finish well," he said. "It just doesn't interest me to walk."
Moyer's wife and crew were more disappointed than him. "They just as soon I quit because they don't like to see me in pain," he said with a grin.
There are all sorts of reasons for a DNF, with the status listing followed by an "M" for medical or "Q" for quit.
Nausea. Vomiting. Dehydration. Even excessive weight loss — weighed during the race, runners who lose more than 7 percent of their body weight are required to bulk up immediately with food or bow out.
The suffering runners who refuse to quit can get carried out of the Wasatch Mountains. Mindy Niitsuma, Salt Lake City, relied on paramedics to help her down a mountain. She was treated at a hospital for a variety of medical conditions. Race director John Grobben said the woman is already planning on trying again.
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Altitude sickness can set in. Hyponatremia, an electrolyte imbalance, becomes a factor. Muscles quit working. Sleep deprivation sets in — Lorie Hutchinson's pacer had to keep her from falling asleep while running.
Joint, heart or breathing problems interfere. Runners lose their will or energy, or they just give in to good, old-fashioned pain.
More than 40 runners conceded victory to the mountains, citing myriad medical maladies. Those who simply list "Q" as their reason for stopping numbered 27, including last year's male and female winners, Karl Meltzer and Susan Hunter Yates. Meltzer, however, still holds the course record at 20 hours, eight minutes — although, this year's finish location changed.
At least nine ran out of time, while 24 of the 209 pre-qualified runners never made the starting line.
The DNF decision
Marsh had run every section of this year's course. During training runs, it took him about six hours to almost complete the 23-mile portion from Lamb's Canyon to Brighton.
It had taken almost four hours to go less than nine miles from Lamb's to Upper Big Water. With about 14 hours to finish almost 40 miles of the course on a bad ankle getting worse, it wasn't looking good.
Marsh would eat two plates of spaghetti handed out by shivering volunteers while trying to decide if moving on was a wise choice. His second pacer, Guy Levan, was keeping tabs on Marsh's progress on his computer, warm and comfortable in his own home.
At one point, Marsh's eyes widened and he yelled, "Let's go to Brighton!"
His crew brother Quin and co-worker Wade Meier — suggested he think about it a few minutes longer. He was reminded of the downhills — his weakness — yet to come. The runner, whose pacers affectionately called "Goat Boy," could still handle uphills.
On one downhill, though, Marsh lunged forward and would have fallen in the cold darkness without a pacer. He was using brush and branches for support, leaning on trees for balance on steep inclines.
"Think about it," he was told.
Marsh thought for close to a half-hour. Nearby, several runners sat around a warming lamp. No one spoke. The looks on faces reflected lost hope, exhaustion and disappointment.
John Lindblom looked like a DNF at Lamb's. He spent about an hour at Upper Big Water before he looked up from beneath a blanket and agreed he should quit. Marsh and Lindblom both declared DNF at the same time.
"I was just happy to get as far as I did on that sprained ankle," said Marsh, adding that he had visualized running on rose pedals to help distract him from the pain, which in the end was too much.
Two days later, his ankle still swollen, Marsh said he plans to try it again next year.
"It's a disease — it gets in your blood, he said, trying to explain the allure of running 100 miles."
"It's such a personal . . . " he trailed off. "It's hard to describe. I don't recommend it to anybody. But if somebody wanted to experience it — to me it was a great experience. It's a character-building experience, that's for sure."