Updated: Aug 31, 2019
GUEST AUTHOR: Jon England
At fifty-five grueling kilometers, the Beaverhead ultramarathon has everything you want in an endurance run. This doozy of a race takes you along the Continental Divide, dips briefly into Montana, up to a scree field, before making a dramatic descent.
I’ve wanted to run a race for a while and I’d never run a marathon, much less an ultra, so naturally I figured the Beaverhead would be the perfect one to start with.
There are different options depending on your level of insanity. 55k for the clinically insane, and 100k for the straight up wackos and although I’ve never been diagnosed, I have my suspicions, so I went for the 55K.
The race starts just outside of Salmon Idaho—a small, folksy town with one of the best Burger Kings around. The starting line was at Lemhi pass, a high overlook on a dirt road about an hour southeast of Salmon.
The morning of the race I checked in and then at 7 A.M. on the dot, the race began with a climb straight up what I’m sure is one of the steepest hills known to man. I decided to hang back at the beginning to sort of ease into it.
Turns out a lot of people had the same idea. I’d learned from the internet that ultra runners do a lot of walking, especially up hills but after the first climb I was ready to get going. So, I went off at my usual base pace. It was awkward passing people and saying “excuse me” every few seconds. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t, and if they would see me again in a few miles lying in a heap on the side of the trail. The first aid station came at about mile five and it was great. We could actually hear it before we saw it because the local high school cross country team was there cheering us on.
The aid station had all the necessities, like first-aid materials, water, Gatorade, and bacon. Loads and loads of bacon. I expected to see everyone spend some time there, reapplying their various body glides or socks or what have you, but most of them just took a shot of Gatorade, a handful of bacon, and kept on going. I didn’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam again, so I did the same. I’m glad I did because the crowd thinned out considerably after that point and although I didn’t mind running with other racers, it was nice to have some privacy (I’d had a lot of liquids).
I really enjoyed the stretch between the first and second aid stations. Some of the forest had burned the previous year and the ground had been turned to dust while the black trees offered no shade, but it was a really cool experience that gave you that you’ve-just-stepped-into-hell kind of feel. There were also some steep climbs. This is when walking really came in handy.
Before the Beaverhead, I’d never run over twenty miles, so I didn’t quite know how to pace myself. I didn’t want to walk the whole thing, but I didn’t want to die either, so I took it easy on the climbs.
The second aid station came sooner than I thought and again, it was great. This one had gummy bears and pickles, which for some reason tasted amazing together so I went to town.
My brother-in-law had run the race last year and he told me the stretch between the second and third aid stations was one of the most difficult and the longest of the race—eight miles. The good folks at the second aid station said the same thing and were adamant that we top off our various liquid containers so that we wouldn’t run out. So, I topped off, grabbed some more gummy bears and pickles, applied some bug spray (more on this later) and took off.
The next few miles were great. Snow fields, steep climbs, and some incredible views all dotted this section of the race. When I reached the half-way point, I wasn’t too sore yet and felt like I had plenty of energy. Then everything changed when I took my a drink from my Camelbak, which I had not done since the second aid station. It tasted like death. It took me a while to realize I had accidentally sprayed my Camelbak mouthpiece with bug spray. It was torture! There I was, getting thirstier and thirstier with plenty of water in my pack, but unable to drink any of it. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson in that story.
Then, mile twenty-two came and my energy left. As I made my way up the steep hill that led to the third aid station at Janke Lake, I started thinking of all the rude things I wanted to say to whoever it was who decided to put the aid station at the top of a hill.
When I finally arrived one of the volunteers offered me a potsticker. I knew they were going to have these, and I had been looking forward to them the whole race, but when I took my first bite, I realized I wouldn’t be able to keep it down. I grudgingly threw the rest of it away.
So, there I stood trying to regain some energy, worried I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down. Meanwhile more happy and energetic racers were filtering in and out. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, the nicest volunteer in the world approached me and said, “You look tired.” I told her I was, but when she offered me a seat, I told her I didn’t want to sit because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get back up. She just smiled and said, “I’ll make sure you get back up.”
Now I do a lot of sitting and no one has ever said that to me. So, I thought I’d take her up on it. I took a seat and she asked me what I had been eating. “Gummy bears and pickles,” I said with an idiotic smile. The look she gave me in response was one of disgust mixed with pity. “You need protein,” she finally said after a moment during which I’m sure she was questioning if I had the mental capacity to be doing this sort of thing. She disappeared briefly and came back with two boiled eggs, which she salted before watching me force them down. Then she cleaned and filled my Camelbak, gave me a salt tablet, and half a peanut butter sandwich all while continuing to refill my paper cup with Pepsi.
Finally, after a few minutes she said, “OK, I’m going to give you one more shot of Pepsi, then you need to go.” I reluctantly agreed, downed my Pepsi and finally stood up. “Before you go,” she said, “eat a Gu. Then be sure to eat another one each hour.” I hate Gu's, but I was too weak to fight as she stuffed a handful of them in my pack. As I forced one down, I realized they weren’t as bad as I remembered and set off again.
Twenty minutes later, I felt great. Pepsi and Gu, right? Who knew?! I’ll never forget that lady. I’m pretty sure she was a ghost, or one of those really smart people that I’m always hearing about. In any case, I can’t say I would have finished if she hadn’t made sure that I got back up. A mile or two after Janke Lake the hard part finally came—the scree fields. The Beaverhead takes you over three peaks that stand at roughly ten thousand feet, and they are covered with loose rock. And not just any loose rock. Sharp, jagged rocks that will mess you up if you take one wrong step. The climb up these peaks was brutal. The rocky ground was unstable and the air was pretty thin. But again, the views were spectacular.
I took this section of the race pretty slowly, but there were plenty of people who hopped along like it was no big deal. I couldn’t figure out how. One racer, who I had seen hours before scampered by me with a smile saying, “great job!” “Shut up!” I yelled at him, “I passed you like eight miles ago! Get behind me and stay there!” OK, I didn’t really say that. All I did was give him a thumbs up. He deserved it.
Getting across that scree field and up and down those peaks was unlike anything I had ever done before. Finally, I climbed the third peak. I had done it. I was so relieved that I stopped for a bit to take some pictures and shed a few tears at my own magisterial abilities. Looking back, the scree field was the most memorable part of the race and perhaps the most fun.
It was literally all downhill from there. Really downhill. The trail from the third peak descends about four thousand feet in roughly four miles. It was really steep, but a lot of fun. I could not quite go full out because the trail was very rugged, but it was a blast to finally run with some speed.
The final aid station had some amazing smoothies, and a great crew. I didn’t stay too long because I was feeling really good and I wanted to see if I could make up some time. There was only six miles left and I wanted to see if I could run all of them. I didn’t. But those last few miles take you down a canyon on a pretty rough trail. I also had to wade through some high creeks, and I was relieved that my shoes drained as well as they did (Topo Ultraventures, if you’re wondering). It actually felt really nice to cool off a bit.
Finally, I came out of the canyon into open range. The end was near. I wanted to complete the race in less than nine hours, so I ran as hard as I could. After a few small hills across some pretty country I crossed the finish line with a time of about nine hours and two minutes. I was only slightly disappointed. I had just finished my first ultra and that was enough. I was surprised at how emotional I was at the end, but I didn’t cry (people were watching).
At the finish line, there was plenty of water, Gatorade and free burritos from a local taco truck (get the pork). They even had some bins filled with ice water to soak your feet in (at least I hope that’s what they were for).
I don’t know if “fun” is the right word to describe the Beaverhead. Did Neil Armstrong say it was fun to go to the moon? Did Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climb Everest because they were looking for a good time? Hard to say, but I’m fairly confident they didn’t do any of it on a diet of gummy bears and pickles.
ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR
Jon England is an aspiring runner, historian, and amateur napper. He started running about three years ago and has only regretted it a few times.
He recently started running ultras, finishing two races this year and looking to tackle a 100K in coming future.
He often dreams about running trails around the various hills and mountains of northern Utah, but more often than not he just goes back to sleep.