MIDWAY — It wasn’t until she’d run about 75 miles that Amie Blackham felt good.
“It was so awful,” said the 34-year-old Draper woman. “The heat was so horrible.”
But don’t confuse her description of how difficult the Wasatch 100 Mile Endurance Run is with how she feels about participating.
“The race was great,” she said, laughing as if she recognized the difficulty in trying to explain how the 100-mile race through the Wasatch Mountains is as beautiful as it is brutal. Even a fit and prepared runner’s body seems to rebel against the feat, with participants suffering through blisters, intestinal distress, nausea, muscle cramps and countless other issues, both physical and emotional.
Still, runners like Blackham, who finished the race in 27 hours, 24 minutes and 51 seconds, swear there is something special about the suffering and the accomplishment.
“They’re amazing,” she said of 100-mile races. “It’s funny, I didn’t start feeling decent until mile 75, and then I felt good for about 15 miles. I said, ‘This is why I do it,’ that stretch where I felt pretty good.”
The 33-year-old race starts in Kaysville at 5 a.m. Friday and finishes at Soldier Hollow in Midway sometime Saturday, depending on the speed of the runner. The course winds through the Wasatch Mountains, and if runners are able to finish, they’ve navigated trails that gain more than 26,000 feet of altitude. This year 312 runners started, with just 205 of them crossing the finish line.
Nick Clark, 39, Fort Collins, Colo., won the race with a time of 20 hours, 24 minutes and 26 seconds. On the women’s side, Sarah Evans McCloskey, 40, Alta, was the fastest with a time of 24 hours, 31 minutes and 19 seconds. The first year runners attempted the Wasatch 100, just five started with two finishing — Greg Rollins and Laurie Staton-Carter, who both finished in 35:01.21. A year later, seven runners started — none finished. But within a few years, the field had exploded to more than 50 runners, and the times had dropped to around 22 hours.
The race, like endurance trail running itself, has exploded in popularity, especially in the last 10 years. The Wasatch 100 is part of a Grand Slam of endurance races, all difficult to gain entry into, and even more difficult to finish.
“Ultra running is just getting bigger and bigger,” said Blackham. “People are discovering that it is so much better than road.”
Races that used to attract a few diehards are now so popular they’ve had to use lottery systems to decide who gets to suffer each year. Blackham’s finish Saturday morning was her third Wasatch 100 finish and her fifth 100-mile finish. She was nursing some painful blisters the day after the race, but said she felt lucky compared to what some of the other runners had to deal with this weekend.
So what happens when the human body runs continuously for 20-30 hours? It all depends on the body and the conditions.
“I had a hard time swallowing, I think because of the heat,” Blackham said. “I could swallow water ... and plain turkey meat. I would never eat (lunch meat) plain, but it was kind of slippery.”
Solid food is critical for a runner hoping to successfully navigate a 100-mile course. But when the body doesn’t want to eat, it takes some creativity to convince it to do so.
When Blackham declined a sandwich, her friend suggested plain lunchmeat.
“It sounded disgusting, but I tried it and I was like, ‘Yes!’” she said. “I feel very lucky because I don’t have a lot of the stomach problems that some people have. ... I don’t think I could puke for 45 miles and still finish.”
Instead, she battled cramps in her legs, abdomen and ribs.
“I got cramps in the weirdest places because it was so hot and I was so dehydrated,” she said. “I couldn’t take a lot of liquid in.”
Still, she was able to ingest enough calories and nutrition that she was able to finish the race, even if she did it slightly slower than last year’s 26:09.
Blackham’s introduction to running happened as she approached 30.
“I was a dancer in high school,” she said. “I did drill team. I think I was terrified of 30, so I thought, ‘You gotta do something big.’ And a marathon seemed like something big. I just thought I’d check it off my bucket list. I don’t know. It seemed like a pretty tough goal to achieve.”
Turns out, she enjoyed the challenge.
It was her training partner’s husband who convinced her to take on an even bigger challenge than 26.2 miles.
“My first ultra was a 55K in Moab, and then I ran Squaw Peak,” she said. “I really enjoyed my experience in Moab.”
Running started out as a way to socialize, but soon she found herself training alone and getting faster. She ran a couple of marathons, but she quickly found that running on trails was more challenging with less wear-and-tear on her body.
“The road is so brutal on your body,” she said. “And the scenery (trail running) is beautiful; the community is amazing.”
While there is a lot of camaraderie among distance runners, there can also cut-throat competition among the fastest groups. The energy, even among the best ultra runners, manages to balance the competition with the camaraderie, she said.
“They’ll pick you up out of the dirt, give you anything off their back just to try and help you finish,” she said. “They’re just so great; I can’t say enough good about the people.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why anyone would want to push their body to the kinds of physical challenges provided by a 100-mile race through the rugged Rocky Mountains. But a quote on the race’s website seems to sum up why more runners every year look to this race and others like it for an experience that will challenge and change them.
“Wasatch is not just about distance and speed; it’s adversity, adaptation and perseverance.”