Back at the end of 2006, after I had sent my entry/lottery ticket in for the Wasatch 100, I started to plan my season. I had the first part of the season figured out but I was looking for a tough 50 miler after Squaw Peak that would still leave me enough time to focus on training for Wasatch. Then I found the race listing "Devils Backbone 50: This is a graduate level run (yes, like Hardrock). It is almost unsupported and unmarked. This CANNOT be your first 50 miler. This course is much, much harder than you expect". After a few moments to consider where it fit in the schedule, I hit the link and signed up.
Cutting edge technology, the hand drawn map
My morning started with a 3:45 am wake up so I could leave the hotel by 4:15 and make it to the start line by 5 am. I noticed as I stepped out of the hotel that felt a bit humid and as I looked skyward I didn't see any stars. Soon after my wife and I started driving to the trailhead the rain began to fall and I could see lightening in the distance. It was all very ominous, driving somewhere I'd never been and running on an unmarked trail I hadn't seen before. The rain just added to the effect. On the way there my wife said, "maybe some of the runners won't show up because it's raining", I just laughed and replied, "you don't know ultrarunners very well yet". Sure enough we pulled in to the parking lot at the trailhead with many cars and saw all the runners getting ready for day's adventure.
The course starts in Hyalite Canyon, just south of Bozeman Montana. The race begins by climbing 3500' over the first seven miles and stays above 9000' for the remainder of the race. It's an out and back with about 8000' feet of climbing on the way out and another 4500' on the way back. The two unique features of this race are that it's unmarked, save for cairns (stacks of rocks) placed in confusing areas, and has only one aid station at the halfway point. On the way out we were to bag a peak and pick up a poker chip to prove we were there before continuing the route along the length of the Gallatin divide ridgeline (or a certain someone's backbone).
The rain subsided just in time for the start. After climbing up through the canyon and a beautiful cirque I finally made the summit after about one hour and forty minutes. As I grabbed my poker chip I looked back down the trail to see the next runner, Erich who I had met at the start line, was just a minute or two behind me. I took a moment to look around at the canyons and valleys that stretched out below and turned in to more ridgelines topped with dark clouds lit up by lightening strikes, it was pretty incredible. After adjusting my shoe Erich and I headed down off the peak together in the lead. Eric is from Bozeman and while he hadn't done the race he had been on the ridge for training. I was happy to have someone that knew the trail and was running the same pace as I was. The whole time we were running on the way out I kept feeling like we were being conservative, but every time I turned around I couldn't see anybody coming. I knew this was good as I usually go out to hard and tend to struggle in the last third of the race. The clouds hung around keeping the temperature comfortable and there was a breeze that would sometimes turn in to a gale force wind.
After about 4 hours and 45 minutes we made it to the lone aid station to be greeted by race director Tom Hayes and a few of his great volunteers. You see, even the aid station is a bit remote, located a tough two miles from the trailhead. That means drop bags and supplies were carried to the spot where we were now standing. They had us in and out within minutes fully stocked with supplies.
As Erich and I left the aid station the clouds parted and the sun started to heat things up. I was still feeling good and decided to push a bit on the climb out of the aid station. After a few miles I was alone in the lead. This was a mistake because soon I started to push harder than I needed to, underestimating how tough the return trip was going to be. With about 10 miles to go I could feel the effects of my effort and I started to slow down. It became very hard to eat anything, which is always a bad sign. I knew that if I could just make it to the six mile long descent I would still have a chance and it would be cooler in the shaded canyon. As I approached the descent I looked over my shoulder back along the ridge and I couldn't see anyone, I estimated my lead to be around 30 to 40 minutes.
I took a moment to look down the canyon and cirque I was about to drop into when the nausea struck. I proceeded to throw up, which initially made me feel better, then as I started to run I felt the nausea return. This pattern repeated itself four times on the way down. Every time I would start to run I would feel sick. I was reduced to a walk for much of the descent and getting dizzy from the lack of food. I knew I would make it I just didn't know what place I would take.
With about 1.5 miles to go I heard footsteps from behind and saw Rob, who had been running in 3rd much of the day. I told him congratulations, you're now in the lead! He was very nice and wanted to know if I was alright before he continued on down the trail. Now I just wanted to get to the finish line and sit down. A few minutes passed before I heard more footsteps and this time it was Erich. He slowed down long enough to convince that I could run to the finish, and we ran together the final 1/2 mile crossing the line for 2nd place. See all the results and the newspaper article.
That was an epic! I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a tough ultra.