Registered and ready to roll; I discovered the Palisades Ultra Trail run while mapping out potential challenges that paired well with vacation options for me and my family. I live in Columbus, OH and yearn for the outdoors, and to be more specific, the mountains. When I found the race which consists of ~11K feet of elevation gain with beautiful mountain scenery and add the idea of mixing in a vacation itinerary through the Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks, I quickly jumped at the opportunity and pieced together the logistics required to get me, my wife, and three young kids across the country.
My training was like any other recent year consisting of moderate mileage for an aging father of
three young kids under eight. I built up the miles from January through the summer and got out as
often as I could in the early morning hours before the kids were up.
The one thing I lacked was elevation. Here in Columbus, OH I operate at 863 feet above sea level. My grit and this “altitude” training was good enough in recent years to go three for three in increasingly difficult 100 mile efforts completing the Mohican, Tuscazoar, and Eastern States century runs. I was confident going into Palisades that I could easily acclimate to the elevation and push a good effort.
As the race approached, I started to feel a bit uneasy about just how little hill, mountain, and
elevation training I had done and as the 2AM race start drew near, I grew a bit more nervous than usual. The 2AM start time was just enough time to lay down and rest my eyes before the 12:45AM alarm went off to get dressed and go.
One foot in front of the other, and don’t stop I kept telling myself. It was a brutal first mile (does anyone have the average grade of this mile, surely it was near 20%). At the top there were a few false flats followed by a long rocky downhill. The darkness still did not make way when we got to the bottom and to the first aid station. It was quite a relief to get through the first of three climbs, it was a beast, but I knew that would be the steepest, although not the largest, climb of the day. I had mentally broken the course into three “parts” or three climbs and the first was complete.
At the start of the second climb the sun had come up and we went onto the second climb, which on
paper was the largest, with a beautiful sunrise to guide us. This was a truly epic experience. It was
hours of climbing to the tope through some of the most beautiful areas my eyes have ever bore
witness to. Mountains, wildflowers, waterfalls, lakes, stream crossings, an ice crossing, sunshine,
every turn was like a Bob Ross alpine painting. It was an all-out effort but one I will never forget.
By the third climb most of the morning was gone and mentally I knew I was going to make it back. I
left the “cutoff” aid station knowing that I made the cutoff time and was feeling OK. Along a single
track forested surrounding I looked off to the side of the trail and saw what looked like a moose
carcass. The body was gone and only the skeleton remained, I took a few photos and carried
on…about thirty seconds later as my eye-line rose from staring down at my feet for a period of time
and up the trail horizon a medium sized brown grizzly bear came from the right and onto the trail.
In an instant our eyes locked for a moment and within a fraction of a second the grizzly turned to its
right (thank god) and went from zero to full speed in a single motion and sprinted up the trail and
out of sight. What an amazing moment I had just seen and what an amazing demonstration the
bear displayed. Literally within a single second that bear saw me, turned, and hit full sprinting
speed. Had the bear turned to its left and came at me, from 25 or so yards I would have had
absolutely no time to react or let alone do anything about that type of speed and force it had
generated. It was a truly unique and amazing experience.
As fortunate as I was with the bear encounter, I was a bit unfortunate in that to this point I had
miscalculated both my hydration and my food intake. I had not taken in enough through the early
morning and I was in a deficit. Near the start of the third climb I could finally feel it. It was an
unrelenting climb up to a mountain peak in fully exposed 80*F + heat and at high elevation for
what seemed like (and what literally was at my pace) hours on end. I came across a few helpful
competitors who gave me some additional calories to eat but my energy levels were nearly sapped
to the bone throughout the entirety of the climb. One step and then the other, this time I had to
stop and take a few breaks, this was not something I was accustomed to doing, but the elevation,
heat, and poor nutrition intake had really gotten to me. I struggled more on that climb than I can
think I’ve ever struggled on a run or competition in my life. It never seemed to end until we got
within a few hundred feet of the top when I saw someone in the distance reach the top and go over
the other side of the mountain, presumably on their way down. This gave me hope, and a second
wind, the second wind I had been waiting on and thinking I would have gotten hours ago! I picked
up the pace with longer and speedier paces and reached the point where I had seen someone cross
a few minutes before. It was indeed the crestline of the mountain and a sight for (very) sore eyes.
I went right into the downhill which at this stage in the day was no joke. Down for over an hour
straight, first through rocky terrain, then through thick brush in a tight single-track path, then
switchbacks in the forest, and finally through the valley at the bottom of the mountain and to the
aid station. What a relief! I had my second wind and the climbing, and downhills were pretty much
over. I think we had about eight or nine miles and the race would be over. I picked up the pace
gradually until I gave a real good final push over the last five miles.
I made up a small bit of time and came through the final forested area where I was greeted by all three of my kids. Joseph, 7, and Madeleine, 4, had both competed in the kids one mile run the night before and were there to help guide me into the finish line. Henry, 2, was there, I had a moment where I thought I could just swoop him up and hold my other two kids hands but that was not going to happen, I was really out of it after the effort I gave to get near the finish line and I had to leave Henry with my wife and just hold the hands of Joseph and Madeleine as we went over the final bridge and up the large stairs that symbolized the finish line. I made it! Into the tent, exhausted, unable to stand, I sat, likely with
a bit of heat exhaustion, I was in rough shape for an hour or so, but I had my finishers hat, and most importantly a memory for my kids to see their dad push and when it hurt and got tough, push more to FINISH!
Huge thank you to the race organizers and to the race volunteers. These folks gave up days of their
time to help put on a truly memorable weekend.