FRUIT HEIGHTS — Heart racing, lungs burning and legs barking, I did my best impersonation of an annoying little kid on a long car ride.
I asked a man who stood on the side of the trail, hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath, where the trail we were following peaked.
Without a word, and without standing up, he pointed toward the shiny dome perched on a distant mountain.
I didn’t believe him.
But I didn’t challenge him either. I assumed he was just rewarding my stupid question with an equally ridiculous answer.
About a mile later, someone else said we ran to the road that ran along the backside of that dome.
I shook my head.
“That can’t be right,” I told my friends. “That doesn’t seem possible.”
No one argued with me. No one offered me words of encouragement. In fact, no one said anything.
We all just pushed up the hill at an almost agonizingly slow pace.
To say Crazy Bob’s Bairgutsman is a painful experience is like saying William Shakespeare was a writer. While technically correct, it’s also almost an offensive understatement.
An 11-mile-ish trail race, it offers participants a little more than 4,800 feet of climbing in the first 5½ miles. Runners (or in our case, hikers and crawlers) endure 1,400 feet of climbing in mile four and another 1,000 feet in mile five. The last half-mile to the dirt road that will eventually lead runners down Farmington Canyon is so steep it’s affectionately referred to as Death Row.
The brutality of the incline is muted by the fact that we were making our way through wild flowers and shrubbery so thick the branches scraped at our arms and legs constantly.
I know why I wanted to run the Bairgutsman, but as I huffed and puffed and scratched and stumbled my way up the mountainside, I wondered what compelled the man who started the race to choose this path.
Richard Barnum Reece passed away at the age of 62 in January of 2008. He lived an unorthodox, adventurous life, by all accounts, including his own as he wrote his own obituary. He started the race about 36 years ago, according to the race’s current co-owners Danny Eriksson and Brian Garlock.
The two men, best friends since grade school, were introduced to the race as participants.
“We ran it one year, and it kicked our butts,” Eriksson said. “We thought, ‘That’s cool.’”
They went on to run marathons and complete Ironman triathlons, but their dream was to start a race series together. While they never did that, they approached the Barnum-Reece family about buying the race after Richard became ill in 2006.
“We’ve owned it for nine years,” Eriksson said. “It’s one of four races on Forest Service land. …It’s intimate. There’s only a couple hundred people that the Forest Service allows us to have.”
That means they get to know the regulars, like the Iverson and Jensen families. Eric Jensen, 40, met his mom at the finish, and said he started running the race at age 18 because he felt like it belonged to him.
“We live on Mountain Road (where the race starts at an LDS chapel), so it’s kind of our race,” Jensen said after finishing his 21st Bairgutsman. “(Each of the families) usually put four or five members of each family on the course. I don’t know that there is much competition (between clans). It’s just, Get through it.”
He said he’s signed up for different reasons over the years, but what keeps him running the race on the first Saturday in August each year is respect for those he’s loved and lost.
“The real spirit of the guy who started the race,” he said, “was that he started it as a memorial for his brother who was killed in kind of a tragic accident. The original race was a mountain memorial.”
Jensen said that his time toiling on the hillside is spent remembering those loved ones who are no longer with him. While he longs for their company, he doesn’t feel sad or longing as he runs in their memory.
“I run up the hill thinking of people who’ve passed,” he said. “It’s a way to honor them. I feel energized from it. I feel inspired.”
He doesn’t have a favorite aspect of the race, but he does enjoy facing familiar challenges.
“You get about halfway up, and it kicks up, and there’s two and a half miles with the vertical at 30 percent or something,” he said, smiling. “That culminates with the last half mile, they call it Death Row, and it’s like 45 percent grade. I love getting to the top of Death Row. I love looking over and seeing Morgan. I try to get up there before the sun comes up every year, but it never works.”
I thought about why we look for new and unique challenges when life never stops churning up adversity that we don’t always want to embrace.
As my friends and I ran down the dirt road that traverses ridgeline, I was in awe. I felt unable to really appreciate the beauty of the valleys on either side of us.
As I opened up my stride and felt the tension in my legs ease, I felt like laughing.
I felt like a superhero. I felt blessed and saturated in joy.
The finish line is a beautiful thing. You descend on it the last half mile as it curls around to a little cutout in the side of Skyline Drive.
I don’t know why the other 199 runners decided they needed to face Crazy Bob’s Bairgutsman on Saturday, but I know that what I earned exceeded my reason for running one of the oldest organized trail races in the state.
Eriksson said he's heard all kinds of reasons for running the race, but for many it's a badge of honor because it is so difficult.
"They just want to see if they can do it," he said. "It's cool to say, 'I did the Bairgutsman.'"
I chose the race because I thought it would prepare me for a race I hope to run next summer. I thought it would push me to my limits in ways I couldn’t on my own.
I was right about that. But what I learned is that one of the reasons I seek challenges when life is already so difficult is that accomplishing those goals gives me confidence. It gives me perspective. It reminds me to be grateful and it teaches me that I’m so much more capable than I know. There is a reason that the T-shirts offered to finishers state: "Conquer thyself." Sometimes it isn't external forces that make life seem like an impossible obstacle course.
These experiences are reminders that even when life is challenging I’m not sure I can take another step, I’m surrounded by beauty and inspiration.
So for whatever reason Richard chose to honor Robert with one of the toughest races he could dream up.
I thank them both.
For the lives they lived and the legacy they left.
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