Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Pony Express 100 mile race

Pony Express 100 mile finish photo

Pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, upping my game and rising up to new challenges is what I describe as "the spice of life". After having completed 18 marathons, 9 ultra marathons, a 250km stage race across the Kalahari Desert and hiking across America and Spain, I was up for the next big challenge of completing a 100 mile race.

This dream led me to researching all the possible 100 mile races out there in North America and I came across the Pony Express 100 in Utah. After reading up about the history and geography of the race it really piqued my interest.

"With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, and the increasing political tensions of the 1850s which led to the Civil War, it became imperative to keep the far West in the Union by providing a more dependable source of information from the East. Finally it was decided: light, tough young men would be selected and hired to ride the best and fastest horse-flesh money could buy. There were to be eighty riders. Four hundred other men were to run the way stations, some of which already existed for the coach line.The proposed route was brutally simple; west out of St. Joseph, up the Platte and Sweetwater rivers, through South Pass and the Rockies to Salt Lake City, out across the Utah and Nevada deserts, up and over the Sierra Nevada and into California, as fast as man and animal could go, day and night.
In the interest of speed, careful consideration was given to weight. Riders had to weigh less than 120 pounds. Only twenty-five pounds were allowed for equipment which included four mail pouches sewn on leather thrown across the saddle, a light rifle, and Colt revolver. Each mail delivery was limited to twenty pounds; total weight on the horse: 165 pounds.
Riders wore a bright red shirt and blue pants. They carried a small brass horn to signal their coming, which was later eliminated when it was discovered the hoof beats did the same thing. Each rider was issued a Bible to sustain their courage and hardiness to make the ride through potentially dangerous country of Indians, bandits, deadly blizzards and murderous heat. Although the Pony Express lasted only 19 months, the associated glamour, both fact and fiction, has assured it a large and lasting chapter in the history of the West. In October 1861 the Pony Express was officially terminated. It became obsolete by the advent of the telegraph system." (Obtained from

Last chance for anything at the Silver Sage in the desert

We found this monster truck at the Silver Sage

Route marker for the Pony Express on the highway

This 100 mile race is also unique for many reasons and one of those is that it does not offer any aide stations, except at the 50 mile point at Blackrock. The runners have to provide their own crew and vehicle. Being so remote in the Utah desert means that there is no access to any facilities or stores nearby. Josh was to be my crew and support person and I did not have a pacer at all for the race. We knew that this would be a challenge coming all the way from Hawaii and had decided ahead of time that we would take this opportunity to do an extended road trip afterwards to explore the beautiful National Parks in Wyoming and visit Josh's family in North Dakota and Washington State. On investigating how expensive a rental car would be for the trip, bearing in mind that a 4 wheel drive would be a better option for the race crew vehicle, it became more feasible to purchase a used truck in Salt Lake City on arrival to do the race with, enjoy a road trip and ship the truck back to Hawaii from Seattle, seeing as we needed to purchase one anyway for our farm on the Big Island. This way we would be able to kill many birds with one stone, so to speak and in retrospect it certainly worked out well and the way we envisioned it would.

Gorgeous fall foliage at Temple Square In Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City State Capitol with the taste of Aloha

We arrived in Salt Lake City a couple of days before the start of the race and found the perfect vehicle that same day after a vigorous 12 hour non-stop hunt. The following day consisted of purchasing food and camping supplies for the race and adventure ahead.

Our Big Agnes tent at Lookout Campground

Creating the "Aloha Mobile"

The night before the race we camped at the start of the race at Lookout Campground on the historic Pony Express Trail.

The wind had picked up momentum but fortunately the campground was relatively sheltered and we spent the evening meeting with race director Davy Crockett, picked up my race number and runner's packet and chatted with a few of the other runners. I discovered that I had travelled the second furthest for the race as another runner had travelled all the way from the Netherlands.

Meeting race director Davy Crockett

A sign of things to come!

Somewhere I had read that it was encouraged to decorate your support vehicle, so we went all-out to turn our truck into an "Aloha Mobile". We had brought two Hawaiian flags with us which we attached to the tailgate and inscribed the words "Aloha" and "Hawaii on the Pony Express" with soccer-mom car paint onto the windows. It was immense fun representing the Aloha State.

Sunset at Lookout Campground in the desert

That evening we were treated to a spectacular desert sunset after which we snuggled into our cozy sleeping bags to prepare for an early 5am start on Friday morning.

All I wanted to accomplish was finishing the race before the 30 hour cut-off time.

The early morning was cold at about 30 degrees F with a swift and icy 40 mile/hour sustained headwind gusting at times to about 50 miles/hour. 26 runners started the 100 mile race and 23 runners started the 50 mile option. It was really tough starting out on such a long and challenging foot race fighting against this cold wind but I was thankful that it was not accompanied by rain. Despite the weather challenges, I felt good and we had decided upon a game plan where Josh would meet me every 5 miles along the dirt trail, where I would exchange my 12oz/350ml water bottle for another electrolyte replacement drink and pop an electrolyte replacement capsule (Endurolytes) at the same time.
Every 10 miles I would stop briefly to have a snack and change my socks to prevent blistering of my feet. At mile 20 I did a super quick running outfit change to eliminate chafing from wet sweaty clothes. We did this like a NASCAR pit-stop: stop; change clothes, socks, shoes, drink some soup and eat something light....but it was still time consuming! My favorite snack was a Mamma Chia pouch which contained organic fruit puree and chia seeds. Any of the other running supplements like GU sachets did not sit well with my stomach with the result that I only had one the entire race. Fortunately I had plenty of Mamma Chia.

Pony Express 100 route with support vehicles

The straight, long desert track

The race course was an extremely hard and compacted jeep track with a layer of loose rocks and gravel on top and by mile 15, both my knees felt broken as each footfall would cause my feet to roll over the rocks and stones. I had to push the knee pain aside in my mind and not focus on it, while I tried to reduce the severity of it by taking ibuprofen and Tylenol intermittently.

Scenery along the Pony Express 100 mile race

The salt flats in the Utah Desert

There was also the presence of other drivers on this jeep track, people spending the weekend camping at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge which was located at the 58.2 mile turn around point of the race. These people had little regard for the runners and some would come hurtling past us at 70mph as we tried to stay close to the left hand edge of the trail, leaving us struggling to breathe in the massive clouds of dust they left in their wake. This fine dust also contained salt particles from the surrounding salt flats and I coughed up this dirt and salt mixture for at least two days after the race.

Mail station and Monument at Simpson Springs

Pony Express Monument

The first check in point was at Simpson Springs, located 16.4 miles into the race. This was also to be the finishing point as the turn around point was located at 58.2 miles. A replica building of the Pony Express mail station (and the crumbling, fenced-off ruins of the original station) as well as a monument to the Pony Express were located at this point.

33.3 miles at Dugway Well and the warmest part of the race

By the time I reached Dugway Well at 33.3 miles to clock in, I had been battling the high winds for hours and had even been fearful of potential wildfires when I smelled the aroma of fire and mistook a sandstorm for smoke in the distance. A rattlesnake had been lying on the trail which I almost stepped on which gave me a shot of adrenaline. This was the warmest part of the day, but still decidedly chilly when I stopped momentarily to refuel. My electrolyte drink varied between Tradewind (which had a caffeine kick and was more tolerable) and HEED.

"Pony Express" in action

Representing the Aloha State

After passing Dugway Well came the steep Dugway Pass and a sweeping turn to the west. Josh was planning on meeting me on the other side of the pass as the support vehicles were not allowed to stop on the pass. Once up and over on the other side, I was delighted to see the "Aloha Mobile" parked on the side of the trail but when I reached it, it was locked and Josh was nowhere in sight. I called out, stretched for a moment and there was still no sign of him. At this point I decided not to waste time and press on after asking the crew in another vehicle to let him know that I had continued. Awhile later Josh appeared looking stressed. He explained that he had walked to the top of the pass with the drone in preparation of filming me coming up and over the pass. This had been the first opportunity he had of flying the drone as it was sheltered from the incessant wind by the hill. As the drone had been hovering over the steep drop-off of the pass, it suddenly dropped from the sky and crash landed into the bushes below, out of sight. In a panic, he had to review the footage he had obtained while it was flying and crashing, to ascertain where it may have landed. He then scrambled down the steep embankment, through the sage bushes and desert brush, where he fortunately managed to locate it. The drone had suffered a few scratches and a broken propeller but at least it had been found and could easily be repaired. That was the end of any potential drone footage we may have had.

By this time I had established a connection with other runners who had a similar pace as we passed each other intermittently depending on our aide stops. Just before the sun set, it was exhilarating to pass Blackrock at 48.5 miles as I knew that I was almost half way there and was still within the safe time cutoff zone, although I realized that there was no time to dilly dally at stop points as the clock was ticking and there were cutoff times at all the check in stations ahead.

The salt flats at dusk

The cold, bleak desert night setting in

The worst part of the race for me was when the sun went down between Blackrock and Fish Springs. Josh had gone on ahead to wait at the 5 mile point as we had agreed upon. During this time, day suddenly turned to night, the temperature plummeted severely and I was not dressed warmly enough. I also had not yet put on my reflective vest and blinkie lights and it got very dark, very quickly. My hands were both swollen at this point, as they do when I run ultra marathons but my right hand seemed to have swelled to double the size and the back of my hand looked navy blue in color. I started to panic, felt nauseous, shaking uncontrollably from hypothermia and was scared I would lose my hand (I'm sure my brain was not functioning at optimum levels due to hypoglycemia too). When I reached Josh, I was a crying, shaking mess and he was very concerned but proved to be a practical, rational crew and massaged my hands back to life, helped me to dress into warm running clothes which consisted of multiple layers from head to toe and thick snow boarding gloves. Once I had consumed some calories and warmed up I was ready to go again but had lost 20 minutes.

Sunset at the midway point

Original route markers of the Pony Express Trail

Up until the turnaround point at 58.2miles at Fish Springs which I reached in the pitch black darkness of a moonless, cold night, I had my training to rely on. From here on out, I had to rely on was my mental focus to complete the race. All I knew was that failure was not an option and I had my mind firmly focused on obtaining my 100 mile belt buckle. Nothing else mattered. We had planned a change of clothes and socks at this point but all I could think of was that it was time to get moving and declined this time-consuming option. It is completely true when you hear people say that the second half of a 100 mile race is all mental. I felt that state of mind kick in and it stayed with me until I crossed the finish line.

After this, Josh and I decided that he would park alongside the trail every 2 miles as it was cold, dark and there were wild animals about. Earlier in the day we had seen wild mustang and antelope, although they were too far from the trail to get a decent photograph.

Passing through the Blackrock timing station again, I felt relieved that I was still well within the cutoff times but the pressure was mounting. I thought that if I did finish, I would probably scrape through with a few minutes to spare, but that was fine, I just WANTED THE BELT BUCKLE!

It was beautiful out there in the desert. A trillion stars were out and the wind had dropped a little. I spent many hours passing a group of young guys back and forth and Josh gave aloha to other runners who needed things like batteries for their headlamp.

At Dugway Well (83.1 miles) I knew that if I just kept up my current momentum that there was a chance I could make it. The last 25 miles were spent with my eye on the prize and little regard to my shattered knees and feet nor my stomach which could not tolerate anything. My mind kept my feet moving forward. I nibbled on two saltine crackers and had a few sips of Perpetuem recovery drink over this 25 mile stretch. Josh tried his best to coax me into taking in more calories to no avail. I did not want to waste time by vomiting. I just had to get to the finish. Those last miles seemed to go on forever along this straight and desolate desert trail with a rather nasty little hill climb right at the end which seemed like a cruel joke but once over the top, the end was in sight!

Elation at the completion of 100 miles straight

 With the Race director and crew of the Pony Express 100

I completed the race feeling absolutely elated in 28:25:32. Davy Crockett presented me with my well-earned belt buckle at the finish and then to my complete surprise and amazement I was awarded first place in my age division (Maters Female) for the 2017 Utah 100 mile State Championship.

Wow! Wow! Wow! What an incredible experience! I absolutely would not have done as well as I did without the incredible support and crewing from Josh who went above and beyond both during my training and during the race to ensure that I would succeed in my goal.

To all the race organizers, crew and volunteers of this extraordinary race, a huge thank you for facilitating such a fantastic event, one that has changed my life forever.

The cherished 100 mile belt buckle and Utah State Championship medal

After completing the race, I felt a little dizzy and could still not tolerate anything orally due to extreme nausea. Thirty minutes after driving off I felt myself break out into a hot sweat and go into a deep dark tunnel, losing consciousness for a few minutes. Josh had to pull over and revive me. I think I was very hypoglycemic and my brain was depleted of sugar. By evening time I felt significantly improved after slowly replacing calories which became easier as the nausea diminished.

Our motel in Jackson Wyoming

The Antler Arch in Jackson Wyoming (these antlers were dropped during molting season)

That afternoon we drove all the way to Jackson Wyoming and found a motel called "The Pony Express" to recover in for the night which seemed the most fitting accommodation for the occasion.

Snow dusting at Grand Teton


The moody Tetons in the mist

The remainder of our adventure included a blissful journey through the Grand Teton National Park with it's spectacular mountains and Yellowstone National Park with stunning geysers and wildlife. After watching a sensational show given by Old Faithfull and enjoying the snow covered beauty of the park we were treated to a close encounter with a herd of elk at the north gate at Mammoth Springs.
Full glory of the Teton Mountains at sunrise

A snowy Yellowstone Park

The guardian of Old Faithful

Castle Geyser in Yellowstone

Onward we journeyed through Montana and into North Dakota where the landscape is dotted with oil wells. Here we enjoyed visiting with Josh's family and really had a wonderful time bonding and revisiting the places and stories of his youth, going through old photographs and appreciating this valuable opportunity. It was fantastic to meet his Mom Deb, grandmother Vivian and grandfather Ken who had just turned 90 years old, as well as his aunt Jan, uncle Rick and cousin Adria and Sammie. What a treat! I must add that I have never felt this cold in my life with temperatures going down to the teens F accompanied by a chilly north wind which felt like it was blowing straight from the arctic tundra.

Montana is the place to see dinosaur fossils

Oil wells dot the landscape of North Dakota

A herd of Bison in Yellowstone

A beautiful Coyote in Yellowstone

On leaving Minot we travelled through  New Town in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and onto the majestic Badlands ( North Dakota's grand canyon) at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In the history garden outside 4 Bears Casino and Lodge on Lake Sakakawea

The Badlands of North Dakota

Going back through Montana we stayed over in the historical town of Butte, made famous for it's gold/silver/copper and zinc open pit and underground mining. It was fun reading about the history and exploring the old town historical district.

Historical mining shaft in the town of Butte Montana

90 ft Statue of  "Our Lady of the Rockies which stands above Butte, Montana

The journey took us across the panhandle of Idaho and through the picturesque town of Coeur d'Alene where we stopped for lunch and stretched our legs by taking a walk along the shoreline of the immense lake.

Gorgeous lake in Coeur d'Alene in Idaho

Fall foliage in Couer d'Alene Idaho

We were greeted by the magnificent sight of the Columbia River Gorge once we crossed over into Washington state and headed straight to Josh's brother Travis, his lovely wife Kelli and their wonderful son Jourdan. A great time was spent in their gorgeous home on the edge of a forest with family Mike & Penny and long time friends, Troy & Erin and April & Greg while we enjoyed a late lunch and watched the Seahawks defeat the Texans in a NFL Football game.

Welcome to Washington State

The Columbia River Gorge

We dropped the truck now named "Pony Express" off at the shipping company in Seattle, enjoyed a last day in the city and the adventure had now come to an end. I could never have imagined it being more successful! My 100 mile race finish achieved, a spectacular road trip through six States, a beautiful reunion with family and friends and a fabulous truck which we can use for our next adventure of building a sustainable home and lifestyle. A massive thank you to all concerned for helping us have such a fantastic experience and for all the love and kindness we received along the way.
Happy in Washington State

Dream it. See it. Be it.