I think it was around mile 20 or 21 when I came to the unequivocal realization, though only after deep and considerable deliberation, that I hated Peter Fain. This was no impulsive, knee-jerk realization. This was not something, like a sudden and nasty splinter wedged under a fingernail, that catches one by surprise. This loathsome feeling had been building and taking shape since mile 12 or so. It was deep. It was rooted.
Twelve miles into Karl Meltzer’s 2017 Speedgoat, I found myself hobbling down an incredibly steep dirt road that looked and felt like a cascading riverbed filled with soccer balls. This was not running. This was Gordon Ramsey’s award-winning recipe for a face-plant. This was harakiri for ankle bones. This was mile after mile of toenail-blackening torture. This was, after all, Speedgoat. The notoriously difficult Speedgoat (often called the most difficult 50K in the country) was created by Meltzer in 2007 and attracts the world’s top ultra runners (Jim Walmsely set the new course record of 5:04:55 this year). And, of course, me. So far as I can figure, Speedgoat’s sole purpose, it’s mission statement, it’s raison d’être is to make grown men cry. Which, coincidentally, brings me back to mile 12.
Mile 12 was about the time when Audrey unexpectedly and brazenly passed me like I was a lumbering and wheezing Winnebago belching smoke in the slow lane. “Arrrrgh!” I said to myself between deep Winnebago wheezes, “I’m not going to let Audrey fly past me like that!” So, like any other 51 year old runner desperately clinging to some rapidly disintegrating semblance of dignity and pride would do, I took off after Audrey and promptly fell onto my face.
Well, technically I landed on my knees and right forearm before my face came to rest in the dust and rocks. But it was there, with blood pouring out of three of four of my appendages, my nostrils thoroughly stuffed with fine, Wasatch silt, that the seed of my hatred for Peter Fain took root.
In the spirit of disclosure, I do need to point out that I did harbor a smidgen or two of hatred for Audrey as I lay dying deep in the Wasatch mountains. But a fellow runner lifted me to my feet and, in the midst of all the blood and wreckage of my haggard frame, I forgot about Audrey for long enough to tend to my wounds and wounded pride. And, more importantly, to concentrate on the true target of my detestation.
And I had mile after mile of exquisite Meltzer torture to nurture my newly rooted seedling of hate. Peter said that I was fit enough to handle it, but he did not tell me that Speedgoat is a 50K rollercoaster of pain; it starts at around 7,900 feet, climbs to 11,000 feet, descends to around 7,600 feet, climbs back up to 11,000 feet, descends to around 9,500 feet, and climbs back up to 11,000 feet before descending back to the start. In a 2014 interview, Meltzer said that Speedgoat epitomizes the essence of ultrarunning; “This is what running is all about. It’s about making it as hard as possible. It’s about going straight up and down really hard climbs.” The man is evil. I’m tired and slightly nauseous just writing about it.
Speaking of tired, mile 20 was for me the point when I could no longer keep Audrey in my sights. She passed me for the last time, and I would not see her again until the finish line. We had been playing leap-frog, she passing me on the downhills, me catching her on the uphills, but the knife-edged ridge around mile 20 cut my pride to shreds and I accepted the fact that the little shit known as Audrey was leaving me to die here alone. I mean that I conceded the leap frog illusion, I admitted that I was in no way as strong or fit or fast as Audrey, and I wished her well as I wiped her dust out of my eyes. And alone, I climbed back up to 11,000 feet with Peter’s words of encouragement ringing in my ears.
Hate is a strong word. Hate is a mean word. And yet hate barely approaches what I felt when I heard Peter’s voice in my head. Endless words of encouragement, boundless positivity, imagine a poorly executed mash up soundtrack of Rocky, Chariots of Fire, and Forrest Gump playing in my head. All of this happening simultaneously with me falling apart above tree line and watching Audrey disappear down the ridge line.
So I did what we ultrarunners have to do, I cried. No, I put one foot in front of the other, wiped away my tears and blood (not necessarily in that order), kicked what was left of my entrails off the side of the trail so that there would be no proof of my existential disembowelment, and continued down the ridge line.
And up the next ridge line, and down the next, and up…well, you get the picture. I clawed my way back up to the final 11,000 foot climb and began the 6.5 mile descent to the finish.
And then something miraculous happened. I found myself alone, on a beautiful single track trail through wildflowers and streams and coniferous forests. I was trail running! Suddenly I was no longer in a race or, for that matter, in a desperate loser loses everything fight for my life. The blood was dry, I was too dehydrated to cry anymore, things were definitely looking up.
And the unhealthy weight of all that hatred from mile 12 was lifted. I was descending! Mile 20 was but a distant memory. There were no more hills! My feet were killing me, my toenails were definitely black, but I could hear the music from the finish line. Was that pizza I smelled? Wait, I don’t hate Peter Fain, I love Peter Fain! I’m alive and I’m going to finish.
And where’s Audrey? I miss her! Suddenly I’m lonesome here running alone in the woods. I want pizza. I want to take off my shoes, and I want my flipping medal.
And suddenly there’s the finish line. A huge Hoka OneOne banner. And Karl Meltzer himself is giving me a high five. He actually looks somewhat glad to see me. Must have been all the dried blood. And there’s Audrey! She’s hugging me. She’s taking off my pack. She’s pulling up a chair for me to sit, and handing me a cold water bottle filled with recovery drink. Audrey is not my downhill nemesis. She’s my guardian angel.
And, believe it or not, given enough post-race pizza, recovery drink, and shade, Peter Fain is not such a bad guy after all.
That, my friends, was Speedgoat, 2017.