Two years ago, just before I moved from Michigan to Colorado, I was searching online for Boulder-based running groups, in the thought that I might find a new friend or two with a passion for slow saunters in the mountains. I stumbled across a blog (this one, in fact) joyously recounting – in rather sadomasochistic terms – an unofficial 100-mile run around the mountainous trails of Boulder. I read it, fascinated. Among many photographs, the first one stood out: a group of grinning idiots, standing in someone’s living room, holding cardboard signs that reaffirmed their idiocy, at 10pm on a Friday evening just prior to heading out on their run. Fools! What kind of person would do such a thing? This was clearly a level of lunacy that no rational being would ever contemplate. I made a note of the running group (the Rocky Mountain Runners) but vowed to avoid these particular folk: these ‘Ryan’, ‘Silke’, ‘Nick’, and ‘Greg’ characters. They had obviously lost the plot.
Fast forward two years, and I find myself contemplating a series of catastrophic life choices. I am standing in my own living room in South Boulder, holding a cardboard sign, with that Ryan fellow taking my photo, while his accomplice Nick cheerfully reassures me one more time just how horribly difficult this ‘Boulder Bad Ass’ event is and how much the next 30 hours or so will hurt. Somehow, these people have become great friends. Somehow, I have been cajoled into this nonsense.
At 9:30pm, my five fellow victims – Andrew, Andy, Cordis, Jon, and John (these Boulder runners’ parents were too busy passing on superhuman genes to be imaginative with names) – and I lined up for our photos. We had been variously coerced, tricked, and bribed into participating in the third annual running of this utterly pointless event. I am writing this blog in the hope that an understanding of the painful truth about the BBA may save some future soul from a similar fate: if you find yourself in any danger of being nominated for this event by Ryan Smith, run the other direction. Sign up for one of those one-way explorations to Mars. Volunteer for your District in the next edition of President Trump’s Hunger Games. Do whatever it takes.
We trotted out of the door on the dot of 10pm. I had been up since 5am, and was about ready for bed. An extra 30 hours of running around in a big circle wasn’t sounding particularly appealing. But peer pressure is peer pressure, and so we disappeared into the night. And in fact, the first 26 miles was surprisingly pleasant. A jolly little loop to the southwest of Boulder, out to Superior and back into Eldorado Canyon. It was a cool but not cold night. We saw half a dozen deer, a fox, a tiny mouse, and listened to the coyotes calling across the plains. The stars were beautiful. I wished on a shooting star, but have ceased to believe in doing so, since my desire for the course to be changed to cut out the Boulder Skyline was not granted. The Marshall Mesa trail was a little long and tedious, as I had been warned, but I benefited from the ignorance of never having set foot there before, and it passed by quickly enough.
Ryan, Silke, and Nick had heroically committed to crewing the whole affair, and soon set themselves a very high standard. Right from the outset, we dined on hot pizza, soup, ramen, and pierogis every 6-7 miles. To improve matters even further, Kristen ‘I-excel-at-everything’ Barthel had baked a delicious batch of heavenly energy bars, which packed more sugary goodness into a square inch of baking tin than I had ever imagined possible. Indeed, I genuinely wondered whether I might actually put on weight during this run.
We made good time through the first 25 miles. Jeff and Karl had joined us for this first stretch, nominally as pacers. However, Karl’s penchant for taking off at breakneck speed and rapidly disappearing off into the middle distance meant that he quickly recast himself into the role of a ‘double-the-pacer’. Unfortunately, it was all too much for Jon, who dropped at Greenbelt Plateau aid station with a hip injury. We were sorry to lose him, but he had only signed up while drunk last week at Fredneck and was presumably grateful to get home in time to avoid the social ostracism that would otherwise have resulted from missing his son’s birthday party.
In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, we cruised along the Fowler trail above Eldorado Canyon, and into an impromptu aid station that our heroes/captors had hiked in past the locked gate. The industrial-strength espresso was particularly welcome. Jeff sensibly terminated his pacing duties here, but Karl continued and Josh and Jared switched in, as we continued on our merry way into Walker Ranch.
Andy Gisler was back for his third attempt at completing the BBA 100. He had dropped at this point in year one, and at mile 80 in year two. This year, he was determined to hold back the tears and finish the job. In retrospect, it’s fortunate that the BBA was held before the election – if it had been a week later, we would all have been balling our eyes out. Walker Ranch was really the only place we worried whether Andy would complete the course: he suffered a definitive low point on the last ascent up to the Flagstaff Road aid station. But we crawled in, devoured some hash browns, I enjoyed my first cup of tea of the event (quality: 5/10), and everyone felt suitably rejuvenated.
We set off up the Meyer’s Homestead trail just before sunrise, with a host of extra company: Brad, Doug, Lauren, and Tyler all joined us. Doug had evidently been sitting around twiddling his thumbs since his solo pacer-crew support of me at The Bear 100 last month, and I could tell he was delighted to be back in a position to help. To make him feel validated, I kept him busy with a variety of inane clothing, food, and drink tasks.
With sunrise came fresh energy, and we hit Magnolia Road feeling good. Mags quickly took that feeling away. Turns out there’s nothing like running down a paved 20% road at mile 45 of a run to really sap any remaining enthusiasm from one’s quads. Luckily Colleen had thoughtfully bought a rather nice aid station at the bottom of the hill, and we called in briefly* to devour French toast and fresh coffee (*Silke claims we were there an hour, and there does seem to be some video support for that hypothesis – but I’m quietly confident that we moved in and out of there as efficiently as if it were a Nascar pit stop).
Onwards and upwards. We headed up the road to the Betasso Preserve. There were numerous compliments about my elegant hands-behind-back style of uphill power hiking. In the Preserve, we made good progress along the single-track, enjoying the switch-backs and soft forested trails in the morning sunshine. All too soon, we were back on the road and slogging up Poorman’s to meet our crew at the foot of the Sanitas swoop. Time for another cup of tea (6/10) and a couple of quesadillas.
By this point, it was apparent how incredibly fortunate the five of us were not only to be doing this, but to have such a vast team of supportive friends out here to help us. It was an indescribably special feeling to run into each aid station to such a crowd of happy smiling RMRers, each eager to help and cheer us on. I am honored to be part of such a supportive community. Indeed, we left this aid station to head up Mount Sanitas with a small green army of pacers, and I was getting slightly emotional about how fortunate we were to have such unequivocal support, when Emily Royal jogged up behind me: “F**k me, Pete – you stink”. Back to earth.
On top of Sanitas, we stopped just long enough to admire the view, and to have the following brief exchange with a stranger who had hiked up:
Mere hiker: “How far are you guys running?”
Amazing Andy: “100 miles”
Mere mortal: “No, no, no. I mean: how far are you running TODAY?”
We scoffed at his lack of ambition, and bounded down the mountain – leaving him to return to his meaningless life of… having a nice hike back down, probably hanging out with friends and having a cold beer, and getting to bed at a decent hour.
Next up: the tiny 2-mile loop up Hogback Ridge that Nick had taken such pleasure in warning me about. He had described it as absolutely hideous. Infuriatingly, he was spot-on. This was the lowest point of my run, for sure, and the place I most strongly doubted my ability to finish. Cordis and Karl had been looking strong, and had disappeared on up the connector trail before we began our ascent. Somehow, though, they managed to get lost in the streets of North Boulder, and ended up some distance behind us. This accidental foray into road running sadly proved to be the beginning of the end for Cordis.
We survived Hogback (just), and arrived in the next AS to the sweet smell of freshly-bought pizza. I was exhausted, but someone handed me a cup of tea. This cup was a perfect 10:10! I loudly thanked whoever made it, grateful that someone had finally mastered the art of making a perfect cuppa. Much mocking ensued: apparently this was a re-warmed cup of the same brew I had ranked as 6/10 before Sanitas…
A painful 15 miles of flat running ensued. By this time, we were stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the last two hills had nearly killed me. On the other hand, running on the flat for 15 miles after 70 miles of tough running was nobody’s idea of fun. Well, nobody except Ryan Smith’s. He had been noticeably quiet until now. Despondent, almost. But now that we were all visibly suffering, and there was a decent chance of carnage in the last 30 miles, he had cheered up noticeably. Finally, he could sit back and enjoy other people’s misery.
The course took us out to Boulder Reservoir. From there, the Boulder Skyline of Flagstaff, Green, Bear and South Boulder peaks taunted us – simultaneously a long way away, and terrifyingly high. We still had all of that to ‘look forward to’.
We were thankful for a lot of good company on the trails; the distraction was useful. Still, the prospect of running all the way back into town along the Boulder Creek path seemed long and daunting. Even the best company would find it hard to distract us for all that distance. Cue Abby Levene: one of few people talented enough to run and talk for 30 minutes straight without pausing to take a breath. She entertained us to Eben G Fine park, where a mammoth support crew was waiting in the gathering dusk.
Sadly, this leg claimed two victims. Cordis’ legs had been cramping for the last ten miles, since his mini-road-marathon in North Boulder. And the negativity of Jon Knotts’ last name came to haunt him: he passed out in a camping chair at the AS and couldn’t be roused. Six had become three. But Karl was still with us, and at some point along the way had quietly made a statement of intent to finish the whole thing. From pacer to placer, he had had a remarkable run – having only completed his first 100-miler last month at The Bear, albeit in a staggering 21 hours.
And so the four of us continued, under the watchful guidance of Ben (I’m-just-as-nice-and-almost-as-talented-as-my-wife) Barthel. Oddly, he was dressed as though he were going for a run in the mountains. The rest of us were dressed as though we were going to camp out in the arctic for six months. Evidently, there was some difference of opinion between how fast Ben thought we might be moving, versus how fast our legs were going to let us move. But we were determined to finish, if for no other reason than the prospect of being made to come back and do all of this again next year was simply too awful to contemplate. Unlucky, Cordis…
And so onto the Boulder Skyline. On its own, this is a challenging run that most people don’t undertake lightly. When they do, they generally take the shortest line between the four peaks. Not us! Oh no, Smith had deigned that we should ascend Flagstaff, then descend all the way to Chautauqua. Then up Green, and all the way back down Bear Canyon. Finally, up the steep slopes of Fern Canyon to summit Bear and SoBo. And so we set off for this extra-mammoth Skyline, with 85 miles under the belt, and no sleep in 40 hours. Hoorah for spending fun weekends with friends…
The approach saw us continuing up the Boulder Canyon creek path to approach Flagstaff from the back side via Chapman’s Drive. Having left Eben G Fine with the prospect of several hours of mountains in front of us, the only silver lining of the situation was that at least now we could justify hiking the uphills. Andrew had other ideas. “Let’s run the creek path as far as the start of Chapman’s” he cheerfully suggested, looking as fresh as he has had 20 hours previously. The rest of us glared at him, and muttered something about him being fortunate that this event has not yet introduced mandatory doping tests.
I have only partial memories of completing the Boulder Skyline. My memory may have blocked out some of the worst. But I was also asleep for a good chunk of it. Including sleeping while running. This was a first (and hopefully a last) for me. It was somewhat disconcerting to wake up to find myself jogging down the singletrack of Green-Bear trail! By the time we started up Fern Canyon, it’s fair to say that everyone remaining was pretty thoroughly destroyed. Ben sensibly called a nap break, and several of us passed out on the side of the trail for five minutes. Then onwards. And upwards. And upwards. I’ve run up Fern dozens of times, on fresh legs from home. It’s never felt like such a struggle. But after a long eternity we emerged on the summit, to be met with the welcome sound of the barks and howls of Pele and Trout, who had hiked up Shadow Canyon with coffee, hot chocolate, jackets, and blankets. (They had brought Brad, Carey, Jake, and Lauren with them to help). Together with the amazing packed-burritos that the Silke-Nick-Ryan dream-team had given us at the Chautauqua AS, we were well-nourished until the very end. No race has ever, or will ever, compete with the BBA for the outstanding support. The food was phenomenal. The company was phenomenal. And Silke had even given us toothbrushes at one AS!
Only one peak to go, and then downhill to the finish! Thanks to the onset of daylight savings time, we actually time-traveled up South Boulder peak – arriving at the summit before we left the saddle at the bottom. Sadly, Strava wasn’t so easily fooled, and didn’t award us the Course Record.
We stumbled down Shadow Canyon, along the Mesa Trail, and – sensing completion – broke into a punchy 7-minute-mile pace down South Shanahan. Onto the streets of South Boulder, and finally back into my driveway. The crowds at the finish went wild! Well, they woke up. All four of them. Cristina plied us with appropriate 3am finish-line nutrition: pizza, doughnuts, and beer.
And so we had done it. We have done it. Most importantly, Andy Gisler has done it, and need never toe the start line of the Boulder Bad Ass again. But others will. And we and the rest of this amazing community of idiotic runners will be there to taunt them cheer them on.