I knew within a few miles that Scout Mountain was going to be one of those races that conjures a demon, though I didn’t know then what it was. Because of the snowier than normal winter, the course was long (54 miles in fact), and we were treated to an earlier than normal start at 5am for extra time to deal with the snow. I am still not sure if it was something I ate the night before, altitude, or just nerves contemplating my first real mountain ultra, but my stomach was not right even before we started. I tried to ignore it as I pounded my standard pre-race breakfast of banana bread and peanut butter.
If there ever was a race that could distract you with sheer beauty, though, Scout Mt is it. The 50 mile version traverses 30ish miles of foothills before doing a 20 mile loop up and over the top of Scout Mountain itself. The race unseats the Superior as the most scenic race I’ve ever run, a spot Superior has had since 2005.
It got light enough to see just as we were emerging from the canyon, and we were greeted with stunning views of the Pocatello valley and the surrounding ranges. I was running with Lauren Ikerd, chatting about the pros and cons of various camping vehicles. It was tough to avoid kicking rocks with eyes glued to the unfolding green hills, and by the end of the day I’d opened two big holes in my shoes from kicking rocks while gawking at the scenery.
We wound through the foothills, finally descending to City Creek aid station at 13 miles. By the time I got there, my demon was already lurking close by, though at that point I still thought it was my borked stomach. For borked it was. I was eating a Gu gel an hour, which is normal for me on a race. When I got to City Creek, I did what I normally do: graze the aid station for supplementary solid food. I walked out with some PBnJ squares, always my first pick at a station, but I couldn’t eat them without my stomach turning. That was a very bad sign.
I was barely out of the station when I saw Allison coming in, less than a half mile behind me. We learned later than we ran nearly the entire race within a mile or two of each other. She looked in good spirits, though she had a bloody knee from a fall. I decided I would call this BCI, “beautiful course injury.”
In the next stretch I met Amanda Norton, a fellow Chicagoan. She was running the 100 and looked strong. We wound our way up the canyon next to a noisy creek and then the trail basically became the noisy creek. From this point on, my feet were wet for the remainder of the day.
I’d been fearing the climb out of the City Creek canyon, and it was actually worse than it looked on an elevation profile. Once leaving the creek behind, it was exposed, sunny, and literally straight up. By the time I cleared the top every bit of positivity I’d gotten running with Amanda was gone. I was grumpy, my stomach was roiling, the demon was closing in, and…then I crested the hill. The climb had brought me to the top of the foothills, and into the high country. The two people who’d just topped out before me were little dots way down the endless road the swooped out before me over the massive landscape. I’d been looking at photos of mountain races for literally decades, and finally I was there. I took off down the hill absolutely gleefully. The demon went back to lurking.
But it wasn’t gone for long. The next stretch rolled through the high country, often near a stream, in and out of forest copses. It began to rain lightly and quickly shifted over to small hail. I debated pulling out my rain shell. The high of the big downhill faded, and I began to feel the slog creep back in. I was keeping a steady stream of Gu’s and electrolytes going in, but my stomach was still way off. I began to meditate on whether I was feeling bad because my stomach was off, or vice versa. So many times in ultras cause and effect are blurred and reversed.
And there, slowly trotting down the singletrack by a gurgling stream with stinging hail falling, the demon struck. I rounded a corner in the trail and between the trees, looming far away, was Scout Mountain. It looked impossibly large and incredibly far away, the distance distorted the way distances in the mountains often are. I genuinely quailed seeing it. I was shooting a video at the time and you can hear it in my voice. I was less than half way through the course, and I was suddenly certain that there was no way I could make it. The immensity of the distance was crushing.
And therein the demon’s strike went wide. I came to a full stop and asked myself, literally out loud, “what the fuck is wrong with you?” I was 25 miles into a run that I’d been preparing for months to do. I was upright. Nothing was broken. I was surrounded by the most beautiful country I’d ever raced through. The ground was even nice and soft and easy on my feet. It was absurd. In fact it was so absurd, that I finally put a name to my demon: impatience.
I realized that I’d been continually thinking instead of paying attention to what I was doing. What it was going to be like to finish? What could this run mean for the Bear? Would I slow down and not make the cutoffs? How the hell I was going to make it over Scout Mountain? I was thinking of everything except the stuff that was right in front of me. My concern about getting it done was ruining the process of getting it done.
As I continued on to Elk Meadow station, I mulled over how effectively impatience can screw over a run. If I’d ever realized that before, I’ve forgotten. The essence of impatience is not being satisfied with the present moment. In normal life we respond to that impulse with distraction. We have our ever present screens, our planning, work to immerse ourselves in, beer to drink, etc. The problem with being impatient on an ultra is that there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nothing to blunt the fact that you do indeed have to slowly suffer the hours and miles it will take to go over your own Scout Mountain. There is no shortcut. There’s nowhere to hide. There is no refuge. You’re getting exactly what you signed up for. It’s the “mindfulness” that so popular right now with the added twist it’s inevitable. You cannot escape it. If you try, you will suffer at the hands of the reality you cannot ignore. You can either be in the present with all the pain and beauty that’s there, or you can try to fantasize about something else and have those fantasies continually assaulted. Ironically this is why I love/hate running ultras so much.
I had the demon’s name going into Elk Meadow aid station, and I had slices of turkey lunch meat stuffed with avocado and bacon coming out, so things were definitely looking up. Allison was just coming in as I was leaving, and again she looked very strong. The next 6 miles were nearly all downhill through canyons, with glimpses of Scout presiding majestically over the route.
I arrived at West Fork, quickly raided my drop bag, sucked down a couple of quesadillas with bacon, and headed toward the trail. Once again, Allison was coming in as I was leaving the station. That would be the last time I’d see here until the end.
From West Fork, the course is a loop up, across, and then down Scout Mountain. Despite having seen an elevation profile, I’d convinced myself that this was basically going to be 10 miles straight up and then 10 straight back down. 50% of that turned out to be true.
On the journey up Scout, I went through the gamut of mood and emotions, including one stretch where again the looming, beautiful mountain brought me close to despair. I tried to keep front and center the idea that the race would last exactly as long as it needed to so there was nothing to look ahead to. I had neglected to bring a pace sheet, and even if I had one, the distances were all off given the adjustments for the snow, so I really had no idea how close I was to cutoffs. I decided that I truly didn’t care. I’d come to run 50 miles in the mountains, and I was doing it.
I stopped at the Scout Mt. aid station and filled up my pack for the last time on the race. It was 4 miles to the top and then another 10 or so to the finish. The snow patches started soon after the aid station. Other than the occasionally post-holing, I found the snow easy and cool on the legs. A thunderstorm loomed just off the summit as I was ascending, giving me some anxiety, but it blew off without any lightning.
Above the treeline, the entirety of the course was laid out below, and it was breathtaking. I am a sucker for dramatic course design, and I honestly don’t think it gets better than this. The turmoil and striving and joy and sadness and, yes, impatience, of 40 miles culminate as you stand on top of the tallest mountain around looking down on where you’ve just gone. I’d wondered for a long time what it was like to combine the joy of topping out a mountain with the exhilaration that comes from covering an ultra distance. I finally got it on top of Scout, and it was worth waiting for.
I’d brought my handheld ham radio up to make some Summits on the Air (SOTA) contacts, so I did that, taking 10 minutes or so. I managed to screw up recording the contacts, and in retrospect this probably had to do with the combination of altitude and fatigue.
As it turns out, the last 13 miles (whoops, bad calculating on my part) was neither all downhill nor easy. Just feet from the summit was the first of two snowfields. You could have theoretically walked the first one, though it looked much more fun to boot ski so I did. It was a total hoot.
The next field was much steeper, so I opted to slide it on my butt. As I was trying to sit down I slipped and began to slide face down, feet first. I simultaneously dropped one of my Black Diamond poles, and used the other to stop my slide after a few feet. Luckily, I’d just caught up with Jim Milar, who managed to snag my dropped pole before it slid off the mountain. I am not sure what would have happened had I not stopped my slide. I slid down the rest of the field without too much trouble outside of a very cold butt and legs.
The descent into the last aid station went pretty quickly, with the snow gradually giving way to rocky trail. I’d expected my legs to be completely hosed for downhills, but I was still able to trot with some purpose. Somewhere in here I began to dream about having a soda water, but water from my pack just tasted terribly. Mental note: soda waters in drop bags. I didn’t need anything for the last 6 miles, so I continued right past the station down the beautiful dirt road.
Sadly, I quickly realized I was going the wrong way and that the route, in fact, went directly up a super steep hill. This made me sad. I passed Jared Thorley, who’d I’d been leapfrogging with all day. I said something about thinking it must be the last climb, but he pointed out that there was one more and it was actually bigger. This made me even sadder.
After a few rolly miles, I started up the last climb through the xc skiing park. Dusk fell and I turned on my headlamp for the second time that day. The last climb turned out to be longer but less steep than the previous one, so I settled in, trying to pay close attention to the trail markers which were now reflective flares in my headlamp.
There is a quality to being alone in the woods at night in Idaho that is substantially different than the same situation in Illinois, etc. I knew, for instance, that there were things like mooses lurking around in the hills. Given that I knew it, I don’t know why I was so surprised when a moose appeared at the edge of my headlamp’s beam.
While I am not a believer in the super-natural per se, I have long believed that there is a whole lot more going on in the world than we know, understand, or can perceive. Sometimes the distinction between those gets to be pretty fine. So I am not saying that my demon of impatience took the physical form of a moose and planted itself at the literal top of the literal last climb of my entire ordeal, preventing me from the blessed relief of 2 miles of straight downhill forest road to the finish line. All I am saying is that there was a moose at the top of the climb, on the trail, and the fucking thing would not move.
The moose was a cow, and did not appear to have a calf. It was enormous. When I shouted “MOVE MOOSE” (to zero effect), it looked at me and the eyes that reflected my headlamp appeared to be 2 feet apart. I was, frankly, terrified. It was eating a tree. My shouting didn’t even cause it to stop eating the tree, and it definitely didn’t move. I decided I would creep around it, off trail. Dimly in the back of my mind, I knew this was probably a terrible idea, as I was braindead enough at that point that I could easily lose the trail in the dark. When I got almost even with it, as far off trail as I could given the terrain, it turned in my direction and stomped. This nearly caused an unplanned bathroom incident. I slowly backed away and found the trail again. Then I stood there.
Overhead the sky was a million shades of deep purple. Far away I could hear people at a campsite laughing. Back across the valley, I could see two runners’ headlamps just beginning the descent I’d done an hour before (later, using Strava’s flyovers, I learned this was Allison and Lauren). The night was warm and the smell of sage was making me sleepy. I stood there for nearly 15 minutes just 2 miles from the finish line, soaking in the evening. I could have stood there all night. Maybe the moose wasn’t the demon after all. Maybe it had arrived to help me finally dispel the demon called impatience. Or maybe I was just standing on the side of a hill in Idaho talking to a moose after roving over mountains for nearly 18 hours, exhausted, exhilarated, and utterly content.
Eventually Jim and Jared’s headlamps appeared around the bend below me. The moose began to move away from the trail at their approach, and when we shone all three headlamps on it, it picked up the pace, disappearing into the darkness. We rolled over the top of the hill, down a couple miles of forest road, and on to the finish.
Perhaps a mile out, Niloy Sen, who I’d not seen since way back at the Elk Meadow aid station came flying around me. I shouted to his receding back “you came from out of nowhere!” and he shouted back “I’ve come from many dark places!” So had we all.
A million thanks to RD Luke Nelson for putting on an expertly run race covering such incredibly beautiful country. The same thanks to all those aid station workers who made each stop a relief.