This was an inaugural race with a potent name: The River of No Return, or RONR for short. Given its close proximity to the Frank Church Wilderness to north, the main Salmon River to the south, and the towering Lost River Range to the east, the location was promisingly iconic even before arriving in Challis, Idaho where it all began. I strapped in for the long 100k course while Dondi rode the rapids on the 50k.
I admit to heady anticipation starting and finishing a trail ultra on the Challis high school track – an old style dirt track – because it combined the imagery of running on both ends of the spectrum. No doubt it hearkened to the finish of the Western States 100 where spectators could watch the final kick, and heck if it didn’t make for great race logistics. Just before 6am we gathered loosely on the track under the big start balloon arch, listened to the Star Spangled Banner over the P.A., and blasted off at the double boom of a cannon. I hung with Paul and Bow for maybe a half mile after reaching highway 93. While we all agreed to take these opening miles nice and easy given the hot, high climbs after mile 30, they still felt a little fast for me this time. After we passed Dondi and friends in front of the hotel where we were staying, I paused to frame the beautiful sunrise with the mountains and runners all around. I chatted with Dennis for another mile about races past and future as we rolled and dipped on the ATV track parallel to the highway.
It was already plenty warm enough in the mid 50’s as we started up the Lombard trail to put on some elevation. Runners ahead of me shrank quickly in the wide open landscape of switchbacks and high desert views.
Paul and Bow were up ahead of me somewhere, but I didn’t let myself worry about it. Despite playing at the ultra distances for two years and accumulating some wisdom, there were plenty of unseen variables on this new course and my first priority was finishing with my niggling minor injuries no worse for the wear. A clean finish on the long downhill at the end would be a nice bonus.
The trail led us ever upward and low colorful wildflowers began to layer in the scenery. Looking back we could see the road far below and the Lost River range as backdrop.
Nine miles up the Birch Creek aid station was tucked into trees on a north facing slope, well prepared for heat. It looked mighty comfortable to hang out there in the shade, but I resisted and only had watermelon and chips before moving higher. John O. passed me here at a nice pace and greeted me; I let him go. 3 miles later came the first major high point (~8100′) and the Keystone aid station, where Meghan Hicks monitored runners and amazingly enough recognized me from last year’s Silver City 100k. While I was munching more food my old buddy Tony rolled in and said “I know what you’re doing – you’re not going to lure me into playing poker again!” I assured him it was way too early for such cards yet. On the long steep descent into Bayhorse, Tony, Jenn, and Brian P. passed me but I held a decent pace with the right plantar only slightly irritated. It was still early and shady at least as we cruised along a tumbling stream and old wood frame mine structures.
Tony Salazar was there taking iconic pictures of his own for the race as I made the last switchback past the mill and entered the aid station in the parking lot. Drop bags were artfully lined up on a curve next to old mining equipment, and I sat for a moment to pan through my own stash for the gold. I started an electrolyte fizz tab, ate Dondi’s sweet potato bars, and munched my favorite pickles before turning to eat some melon too at the aid station. I took a few photos while yet another photographer took photos of me.
Then it was time for big climb #2. It was more of a grind than I anticipated with 2600′ of steady relentless power hiking given the grade and thinning air in the full sun. I talked with Brian P. on races, shoes, sunscreen, and vitamin D for a short while, (he is from northern Idaho; we met at Sun Mountain), but he dropped back to try and catch his breath. I had a feeling it might be a long day for him. I soon passed another younger runner also struggling but pressing on regardless, and then caught up to Tony. I noticed my right plantar and achilles would tighten with long walk stretches and make it hard to run again, so I started including small bursts of easy running as long as feasible. I decided that was a positive in my favor, better than the inverse. Tony and I arrived at Bayhorse Lake together, where Lyn V. was trying to calibrate her salt intake. I took advantage of the restroom after they left, admired the lake and relaxed fishermen, and grabbed one more gingersnap. My energy levels were holding up evenly, without nausea in the heat or altitude either.
I followed markers into the trees to face the last bit of climb to reach 9000′. Snow lingered in the shadows. As it melted, mud made for tricky footing in places but it was nice to be in the shade and off the road. As I moved further west and down I passed a single runner and a sense of quiet remoteness enveloped me.
The route merged into a smooth gravel road that switchbacked downward, but unlike the road to Bayhorse Lake this was pleasantly isolated with wide open views that changed with every turn. A single ATV passed me going the other way. There were just enough markers to believe I was still on the right road. About a mile from the Squaw Creek aid station I got a surprise – my hydration bladder – fixed since the Quad Rock leak – was empty. I couldn’t remember ever emptying my reservoir so early in a race. My fingers felt decent so I concluded my salt intake was good, but something about the terrain and weather kept me thirstier and drier than usual.
I rolled into a warm welcome at the aid station at 30 miles, slightly less than halfway. Tony was there but headed out quickly, suggesting I catch him in 15 minutes. Here I popped open another drop bag for more pickles, which got the attention of the aid station volunteers and we discussed the virtues of canned home pickles versus store bought while they filled my water bladder. I savored a water misting from another volunteer. Everyone there was patient, prepared, organized, and enthusiastic – a hallmark of every aid station in the race. I dunked my hat in the sponge bucket as I left, noting Dennis trucking in after me. He was having a good day. I felt about as prepared as I could be for the long 8 mile leg ahead but not very energetic.
The next section was portrayed as the prettiest section of the course. The race directors were right. The trail took a gentler grade up along Squaw Creek itself, became single track for foot travel through lush alpine meadows, and made many creek crossings filled with rainbows of rock. I never did see the Sandhill Crane defending a nest…but I did hear a wild shriek behind me I thought might be the bird. Or maybe an elk. Instead I got to say hi to a Western Tanager, a favorite of mine but nothing too dramatic.
While the trail started gently enough, it became a layer cake of increasing difficulty and fatigue. Some short climbs felt more like stairs. I passed a couple runners through here and caught up to Tony, and hiked with him for a little while until I just wanted to run again. It was hot and I kept drinking. After reaching a peak in the trees I descended through another meadow, had one more dunking in a fast creek, and clambered right up into the Mackay aid station.
Here I found John O. sitting in a chair looking miserable. Not long after he passed me he started having terrible nausea issues, the worst he’d ever had. Given that he has more than a couple of hard hundred milers under his feet…well, he was having a rough day. After eating some watermelon and chips I decided to check my water supply again – much to my astonishment it was almost empty again in only 8 miles. I had them fill it up. Tony arrived, asked John if he had ginger ale yet, and of course he had – plenty of it I might guess. We asked him what his plan was. He said he might drop out, but at this station that might mean on the back of a horse. We were easy on him verbally but I think we gave him some looks to remember…maybe I was just visualizing him tied up on the back of a saddle for several miles.
Tony and I departed together to start the next grueling 8 mile stretch along the old Custer Motorway. This was another road section lined with trees but packed with white gravel that reflected the afternoon sun. It was another grinding climb but I took a little motivation in running to keep my achilles loose and trying to reel in Scott B (from out east, with my same last name and whose company provided the SWORD drink on the course.) While I worked on this goal, there were a few high clearance trucks that rumbled their way up and over the pass with some dust in their wake. Most were not involved with the race, probably heading off to camp in the vicinity. One stopped and rolled alongside me for a moment which led to this amusing conversation:
[driver rolls down his window]
Husband: “Hi. Is there a race going on up here?”
Husband: “We’re kind of far out here. Where does it start and finish from?”
Me: “Challis.” [mouths drop open from husband and wife] They say together: “Challis?!”
Me, maintaining my pace: “Yes. It’s a 100k, so there’s a little hiking involved as you can see.”
Wife: “I just did a 5k last weekend and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done!”
Me: “Well, every race is hard in its own way, really.” [thinking back on my own reflection of this after Standhope, but knowing that numbers intimidate]
Husband: “You must be doing this over the course of a couple days, right?”
Me: “Um, no. We started at 6am this morning. It’s all at once.” [mouths again drop open]
The husband eventually says he might be interested in doing such a thing if he hadn’t injured his foot years ago. They wished me luck and rumbled off towards the pass. I didn’t see them again, but it was a fun interlude. One never knows where the Kool-aid might take hold. Or is that the red pill? Back to the road…
The descent from the summit towards Challis was sluggishly painful on the tired quads but at least I was running. I’m expecting Tony to catch me here but he never does, so I must be doing ok. Scott however has passed out of sight. My eyes feast on the growing mountains in front of me. I know I will be visiting those on the right soon and try to discern the ridgeline for the course.
After what definitely felt like 8 (mentally 18) miles I finally pulled into Fanny’s Hole aid station and mile 45. Jon Kinzer and Amy King were there among several others, taking good care of us runners. They again topped off my bladder with ice (!) and water, which is down notably. Cold drinking water is bliss. I snag my largest drop bag of the day and get to work changing my shoes. Under my management so far the right plantar was not bad but not great – and I know the hardest test of that for the day will be the 13 miles of downhill after Buster Lake. This fresh pair also had the virtue of being a little lighter, a nice bonus. More joy arrives when I learn they have OTTER POPS here, at the perfect time of day. While I’m slurping a grape version Tony and John O. arrive. John is the big surprise – I note it’s good to see him. He said it was our look at the last station that got him going. That plus Dennis arriving. His nausea was better for a while until the last bit to here.
While John was working on his own otter pop, a volunteer honored my request to use my massage stick (also packed in my drop bag since they aren’t common at aid stations) to loosen up my legs at a stronger pressure than I could manage. If I had some funds with me I could have filled his tip jar. Jon K. gleefully observed it’s a rare moment in time when all three of us are actually seated at an aid station at the same time. He was right, I think. Maybe we could apply the Heisenberg uncertainty principle given how hard it would be to predict and observe it. Here is the photo for the history books:
John left first, then me, and then Tony right on my heels. It was an absolutely brutal two miles of uphill, but it was grand to be off the road and my feet were liking the change in shoes. Tony noted such uphill mountain climbs were John’s specialty, so I suggested we would just have to catch him on the long downhill. Tony agreed on the plan, but now we had to execute. I leveraged my own legs and otter pop energy to make up some time and soon passed Scott too. He was struggling mightily. No doubt it was steep and more steep, with the air going thin once again as we touched 9000′. It was worth it as the peak brought a cornucopia of wildflowers, long distance views, and a smile to my face in the cooling air.
The trail dipped down into a 3 mile descending rollercoaster with snow drifts and mud snaking around trees. At Buster Lake aid Lyn V. was leaving just as I arrived, but with no sign of John – the guy was keeping Tony and I honest. With a half marathon of miles to go I ate a few more chips, melon, and then a cup of broth. A few ATV’s arrived and delivered some news to the volunteers about how many IV’s were needed at Bayhorse (also a key aid station on the 50k). So – I was hardly the only dealing with dehydration! I wondered what combination of factors made this race worse than others I completed, but it was all just theory to ponder while Tony rolled in looking a little peeved. “Now I know why it’s called Fanny’s Hole!” I said he would appreciate that section more after he was done, but he looked mighty skeptical – and tired. At that moment I realized that I was tired too but I never had a low point in my mood for the entire race. I couldn’t say why but I felt appreciative.
The road was rougher than I expected for a long time, but the topography slowly opened and smoothed up as the elevation dropped. I passed Lyn first, and just as I saw John around a bend Tony caught and passed us both a little grimly. When I reached John he commented: “At least I held you guys off for a while. I know you guys are screaming fast on the downhill.” I assured him I was only average on a good day. Tony was the pro but I thought I might have a slight edge on the pavement today, thinking of my fresh shoes. He told me to have fun. I could just barely keep Tony in sight around the endless turns but I managed it. He was keeping me motivated.
I reached the final aid station, Custer, while Tony was still there. The downhill was working our systems because we took advantage of the bathroom. I presumed I didn’t have a chance to keep Tony in sight with his son joining him to pace the final leg – who offered to pace us both when I groaned at it being 6 miles instead of 5 like I imagined. Then Tony puked up some of what he took in and commented how tired he was (and still gave a grin for my camera). As we left I found myself pulling away once again.
The pavement felt quite firm after all the dirt miles even in my high stack shoes, so I just played with the shoulder on and off, an experience I’ve practiced plenty when training during lunch. Houses on the outside of Challis became more numerous, and one of them had a pile of kids cheering runners on in the dusk while their parents waved from the front door. It was a nice welcome back to town. Runners appeared in front of me in various states of running and suffering. I reeled them in, told them “Good job”, and passed for the next as my pace gradually increased. I told my brain it was a road marathon and I was in the home stretch, which actually seemed to help. As I reached the main street of Challis proper and passed the two open bars, I saw one more figure ahead of me. It was my “twin” Paul, much to my astonishment. Tony’s son said he had left 15 minutes ahead of us at Custer and I presumed there was no chance to catch him. Paul said “There you are!” and I said “I can’t believe I caught up!” He waved me on and I held the pace back down to the highway, along the line of fluttering yellow flags in the dusk, past the park and back onto the track I began on so many hours earlier.
Paul Lind’s voice over the P.A. announced my arrival and counted off the meters left as I rounded the track with the strongest finish I could muster. It was good to finish, and finish strong.
Results: 14:23, 32 of 62 finishers. Roughly half an hour slower than Silver City last year. Bow had a great race with a stunning 12:26, far ahead of me; Paul came in about two minutes after, then a little later Tony and John. Jeremy H. won the men’s race with a blazing time of 9:15 that will likely hold for a few years.
Distance: 63 miles
Average pace: 13:43 min/mile (slightly faster than Quad Rock 50! Fast road miles.)
Smugmug gallery with many more memorable photos from the course and finish.
Dondi had a solid time of 10:08 with no problems, fast enough to keep the McCall 40 in her sights.
I had a good race with a strong finish, but not a spectacular one. Given that my feet are on an upward trend of improvement and I learned some new things, I was content. My food balance is working, I tried some supplements which seem to mitigate late race cramps (details in appendix below if interested), and my shoe tactics paid off. Perhaps more importantly…I had the opportunity to see miles and miles of gorgeous backcountry I had never seen before. Lately it seems a long trail race is what gets me there. (Last time I really explored this area? When Dondi and I were married in 2005 a little ways due west.)
I particularly appreciated Paul and Neal’s remarkable first time race execution with their dedicated army of volunteers – many from the Challis area. The aid stations were all incredibly consistent, enthusiastic, and helpful, and having 3 drop bags nicely placed 15 miles apart in mid course made it easy for me to plan some fuel/shoe tactics in ways I hadn’t done before. While there was a little more road work than I prefer on average these days, it dramatically simplified course support and made navigation easy. It also meant we could stay in a hotel only a few minutes walk from the start and finish – complete with kitchen and optional milkshakes. (Huckleberry gets my recommendation.)
We took advantage of the short raft trip offered on the main Salmon on Sunday. All that was necessary was to put on a life jacket and relax while looking at the mountains we ran up the day before, or the wildlife around each bend. It rounded out a very memorable weekend.
Food = sweet potato bars, raw carrots, Bogg’s trail butter (Ozark), pickle spears and juice from drop bags or carried; watermelon, cantaloupe, potato chips, pretzels, gingersnaps, otter pops, and chicken broth from the aid stations. Larabars were in my bags but I was never inclined to eat them in the heat.
Gel = Vfuel peach gel that grew on me from Quad Rock, contains some caffeine but my stomach tolerates this one, and Hammer huckleberry. Equivalent of about 6-7 servings altogether mixed with water. Easiest to eat while moving and quickest energy.
Electrolyte = Hammer Fizz tab at every aid station starting from Bayhorse, Hammer Endurolyte caps, Salt Stick caps. Although sodium based energy drinks were on the course they don’t sit that well with me and I prefer plain water to drink.
Supplements = Hammer Endurance Aminos and Anti-Fatigue caps. For the first time I took them closer to a recommended dose level during the race, alternating one of each per hour after an earlier minor experiment at the 24 hour. This was the first race in a long time when I did not have the threat of cramps in the final miles (legs are still tired, no doubt). Time will tell if this was a key factor or not. My stomach handled this modest volume of pills and is perhaps another reason I drank more water getting them down.
Altra Lone Peaks = first 45 miles (better traction, my usual workhorse)
Altra Olympus = last 18 miles. Altra fit is still the best for my wider foot.
Yeah, orthotics too which is helping with plantar management.
Drymax max protection socks, a little thicker than my other options and robust.