I’m not a super analytical person. In fact, most decisions in my life are based on emotion and how strongly I feel in the moment. But I do plan my racing season well in advance. So, there I was in December 2016 with three 100-mile races on the radar and a few other ultras to fill in the gaps. I had zeroed in on Bighorn 100 in June 2017 as my goal race for the season — and my Hardrock 100 qualifier. Let’s do this!
But, of course, life rarely ever goes as planned. At Bighorn, I found myself chasing the cutoff and made the decision to drop out at about 70 miles. The muddy trail conditions and nasty weather had tanked many a solid runner, and I was one of them. But I had based the decision on logic (i.e. mathematics) rather than emotion — and immediately after I made the decision, I regretted it.
Bighorn 100 was my first DNF ever and a hard pill to swallow. As I sat on the plane on my flight back to St. Louis, all I could think of was that I needed to finish a mountain 100-miler and get a Hardrock qualifier…and that’s how I ended up entering the IMTUF 100.
IMTUF 100 is notorious for its steep and relentless climbs, unpredictable weather and technical terrain. (To call the course sadistic would be an understatement.) It’s also a Hardrock qualifier and the only 100-mile race that’s part of the 2017 US Skyrunning race series.
But none of that mattered at the time. I saw the elevation profile for IMTUF 100 — more than 20,000+ feet of elevation gain — and I knew it was the race I was going to run. I got back home, texted Amanda Smith to ask her if she would pace me and received the response, “I got you.” I didn’t need anything more.
But, as Jameson Frank wrote, “Our greatest battles are those with our own minds,” and as IMTUF approached, I let self-doubt creep in. Rather than trust my ability to finish the race, I put my trust in uncertainty. Had Bighorn been a fluke, or was I not up to the task? When I should have been changing my relationship with fear and the fear of failure, I was instead dwelling on “I’m not good enough.” I hoped come race day my nerves wouldn’t deny me a strong performance.
Race: IMTUF 100 (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival); in “real” miles the race clocks in somewhere between 102 and 106.
Race Directors: Jeremy and Brandi Humphrey
Location/Course: McCall, Idaho. IMTUF 100 is alpine to the core. Starting and finishing at the famous Burgdorf Hotsprings at approximately 6,115 feet with runners ascending Bear Pete Mountain to Squaw Point at approximately 8,000 feet, the race tackles some of the most rough and rutted trails and summits of this premiere mountain playground. Crossing eight high passes and gaining around 22,000 feet, this world-class course was crafted to be tough and breathtakingly scenic. In 2017, IMTUF ran a counter-clockwise loop, and changes direction each year.
Difficulty: Extremely Rugged and Hard
Time Limit: 36 Hours (100 Mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer: Amanda Smith
Goals & Training: (a) 32 Hour Finish (b) 34 Hour Finish (c) When shit breaks down… just f*$king finish!
As for training, I ran straight up vertical, as much vertical as I could get here in St. Louis. I have a bit of OCD, and it helps when I’m zeroing in on a goal. I averaged 60+ miles each week with approximately 10,000 feet of gain. I’m not a big fan of hill repeats, so I bushwhacked and ran some steep sections of the forest that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as trails. I ran slow but steady and power-hiked a ton, with some tempo runs thrown in, too, and a few overnight long runs. My training was as good as it would get living 600 feet above sea level.
As race week approached, the one question that circled my head day and night was, “Am I good enough?” I’ve never felt so unsure of my ability to finish a race as I did going into IMTUF. I felt inadequate, nerves high, as I struggled to find my footing.
Amanda and I flew into Boise, Idaho on Thursday, hung out, loaded up supplies and drove three and half hours to Secesh Stage Stop, our “luxury” crash pad for the weekend. Friday morning when we woke up, the weekend weather forecast was calling for sub-30-degree temperatures overnight and highs only in the 50s. Since I hadn’t packed any running tights, we decided to make a run into McCall in hopes of finding some long pants to race in. As fate would have it, all I could find was yoga tights in size large; they fit in the legs, but the waist was big. No worries, I could manage.
At packet pickup, I got behind a girl and asked, “Hey, is this the line?” She turned to me and started talking, and I stood there completely flabbergasted trying to put a name to the face…. Holy shit, it was Anna Frost! I was talking to Anna Frost!
As we made it to the pre-race gathering, I nervously chatted with a few runners, and I soon stumbled into the joke of the evening.
Runners: Hey, where are you from?
Me: St. Louis.
Runners: (With a surprised, somewhat uncertain look on their face.) So, how do you train for something like this in Missouri? Did you run up and down the Arch? (Or.) St. Louis, Missouri, where is that? Midwest is what we fly over.
I heard this multiple times at the pre-race meeting, at the start of the race and during the race. I became “St. Louis” to everyone, and every time a runner would pass me or vice versa, I’d hear them call out, “Hey, St. Louis!”
As a result, even while I battled the demons in my head and blew off the comments, all this talk had me questioning my ability to finish the race even more. A few of the runners I’d spoken with had run IMTUF previously, and many of them had impressive racing resumes with races like Hardrock 100, Bear 100 and Bighorn 100, to name a few. Most everyone I lined up to race with was from Idaho, Colorado, California or some other mountain state, and then there was me from St. Louis, 600 feet above sea level and the only flatlander out of the 141 runners that started the race.
“You don’t belong here,” said the voice in my head.
Start Burgdorf to Lake Fork Trailhead (44 miles)
Headlamps ready and the sound of the elk bugle ringing through the frigid air, we hit the trail running at 6 a.m. The temperature was holding steady at about 26 degrees. Amanda said good luck to me, as the next time I’d see her would be at 70 miles, sometime early Sunday morning.
The first few miles were nothing more than a power hike, as I got behind a few runners and chatted with Anne Crispino-Taylor, whom I’d been introduced to through a mutual friend. Two things that I was unnervingly aware of
were my elevated heartrate and the cloud of “moon dust” that I was inhaling.
As we got to the top of the first climb at Bear Pete, the view was absolutely stunning! I stopped to take a few photos, and this gave me a chance to slow my breathing a bit, take in the scenery I remind myself that this was what I lived for: the present moment. And in that moment, I was glad to be standing right where I was.
As I started to run again, we were descending. I ran hard, as I love me a downhill, making it past Cloochman. There was a quick stop at Upper Payette #1, and I kept on rolling with Anne all the way though North Crestline, about 24 miles into the race. At this point, I decided to slow my pace, as my heartrate was high and the climbs were becoming labored. Still, I ran steady.
All I remember was the descents were just brutal; there were sections we ran on rocks, rut and more rocks, and I had rolled my ankle at least twice. Nothing major, though, as I was still on pace for that 32-hour finish when I rolled into Lake Fork at 44 miles. I paced with another runner as we hit Lake Fork.
As I made my way to the aid station, I was being cheered by three women. I said hello to them, and as I turned to walk off, one of them looked somehow familiar. I stopped and did a double take, locking eyes with Nikki Kimball. As I smiled ear to ear she ran over to give me a hug and all I mumbled was, “Thanks for the hug. This made my day!”
A few things to note before I ramble on. Regarding the “moon dust,” it was crazy ridiculous on these trails, in some places 3 or 4 inches deep, and not only do inhale it the entire race but it is in your mouth, ears, nose, eyes and any other exposed body part. Also on this note, change your socks and shoes as many times as you can if you want to finish the race without major foot issues, and make sure you fill up water and food at each aid station, as those climbs can take up more time than you anticipate and some aid stations are 7 to 8 miles apart — and feel like 13 to 15.
Lake Fork to Upper Payette #2 (70 miles)
Ah, Lake Fork! This aid station is the bomb! It was where a lot of runners were picking up pacers, so there was a crowd of people, and the aid station had brick-oven pizza. (I passed even though it looked awesome.) Lake Fork is also where I had to pack all my gear for the overnight stretch, load up water and fuel, and double check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. As I sat there digging through my drop bag, contemplating the extra layer of shirt and heavier long pants, Bill Losey sat next to me and the conversation starter was the Bighorn shirt I was wearing.
Bill: So when did you run Bighorn 100?
Me: Ha, if you call it running. I was out for the race this past June and dropped at miles 70.
The next thing I knew I was telling Bill all about the DNF and how I hated myself for having made that call. We chatted for a bit as both of us changed gear, etc., and come to find out that Bill had run Hardrock 100 a couple of times, Bighorn 100, Bear 100, Angeles Crest 100 and even Barkley Marathon a few times. Serious badass! Yet here he was telling me he just needs to finish IMTUF.
Me: Huh!?! Why wouldn’t you finish? With all your races, you should have nothing to worry about. I’m the one who needs to be able to finish this beast of a race.
Bill: I haven’t run a 100-mile in three years, and I don’t want to DNF, as I have a long drive back to Colorado and spending that much time in my head after a DNF will not be good.
With that said, Bill was gone. I gathered my stuff and, after a series of arguments with myself, decided to add the fourth layer of shirt for the overnight stretch — a decision I would not regret when temperatures dropped well below 25 degrees and many runners were dropping due to fatigue and cold. As I made my way to Snowslide, my conversation with Bill had catalyzed something inside me: I was no longer questioning “Do I belong here? Do I have it in me to finish? Am I good enough to finish?” Instead, I knew I had to finish this race!
I ran hard, it got dark and it was bone-chilling cold, but I was in my element. I love running at night! It was a clear night, and the crescent moon shown. It was perfect until I started to descend and found myself turned around at the bottom of the same hill having made the same loop twice. WTH!?! I stopped and waited for a couple of runners coming down and followed them out to the aid station.
Snowslide to Duck Lake was a blur. I was in and out of the aid stations. I had 10 more miles to go until I would hit Upper Payette #2 once again and pick up Amanda. I was looking forward to having some company and hammering out the last 30 miles. At this point, a 32-hour finish was still in sight, but let me tell you, this course is so freaking deceptive.
As I made my way to Upper Payette #2, I was losing all depth perception in the light of my headlamp and the thick clouds of moon dust, which was ankle deep in places and making for a treacherous descent. Part of it was fatigue setting in, and I lost footing in a couple of places only to find myself on my rear. As I tried to steady myself, I rolled my ankle for like the fifth time in 10 hours — but this time when it happened I experienced a stab of pain running on the inside of my right leg all the way deep into my right hip. F*CK!
This was bad. I knew I had done a number on myself. I’m a trail runner; I roll my ankle all the time, dust it off and keep running. But this was not just another ankle roll. I knew I had tweaked something, but I pressed on with some pain in my hip and my ankle being totally uncooperative. Going downhill was sheer torture at this point. I could power hike with minimal stress, so I did just that all the way to Upper Payette #2.
Upper Payette # 2 to Finish Burgdorf (Somewhere between 102-106 miles)
By the time I hit Upper Payette # 2, I was unsure if I’d make it to the finish in 32 hours — but that was the least of my worries as I still had 30+ miles to cover before I could say I made it.
I was relieved to see Amanda waiting for me. I made a B-Line for the chair, swapped shoes and socks, and could not ignore the swelling that was fast growing in my right ankle. UGH! I typically stay away from anti-inflammatories while racing, but right there and then I didn’t even think about it twice. I popped some ibuprofen, got some food and coffee, and was out of there as quickly as I could. Upper Payette #2 was a runner’s graveyard, and I didn’t want to become one of dead.
Amanda and I hiked steadily, and ran when I could, until we started to make the climb up Diamond Ridge. It was daylight, and unlike most runners when daybreak gives them an extra push, for me daybreak is when I’m at my worst. The realization that I was now looking at a 34-hour finish had sunk in. I was frustrated with myself, as I could hardly run the downhills, but Amanda kept me talking and moving, and before long we were at Chinook, about 86 miles into the race. Gear change, stock up on food for later and we were on our way again. It was starting to get hot! How hot you ask? Well, I got sun burnt in my face and that rarely ever happens.
With a 34-hour finish still in sight, we made the most sadistic climb (or so it seemed) on the entire course only to drop down and do an out-and-back at Lone Lake, mark our bib and make our way to Willow Basket for a second time. What is the point of this torture? Lone Lake! But wait, what is this? It was the most beautiful and refreshing sight! Lone Lake! I loved Lone Lake! Amanda and I took some photos and pressed onto Willow Basket. I was starting to hit a massive low as we made it past the aid station. I was reduced to hiking, and the frustration of not being able to run some of the so-called “runnable” terrain that lay before us made it twice as hard to press on mentally. Nine more miles; I had to do this for 9 more miles! I can do this. I’m freaking going to finish this!
Sigh! I was running low on calories, and the sun reflecting off the mood dust made me dizzy. I was hot and then I was cold and then I for sure thought I had lost my mind.
Amanda: Stop, you need to eat something
Me: I just can’t eat anymore.
Amanda: OK, well, you have to eat. We still have 6 more miles to go, and you need to eat. Here have a gel.
Me: Gah! I hate these hills. I even hate the downhills, and I just want to run flat — but don’t tell anyone I said that.
We both laughed so hard at that. Two gels later, I managed another couple of miles before I had to take another gel. I felt like the walking dead. The 9-mile stretch from Willow Basket to Ruby Meadow just sucked. I asked Amanda what time it was and soon realized there was no way in hell I was going to make the 34-hour finish unless I start running, and running hurt. I tried, but the pain in my right ankle and hip was unbearable. I took another ibuprofen just so I could push myself to run.
Then, out of nowhere, while I was still complaining, we were on the road 2 miles from Burgdorf. I was miserable to the point that I refused to run. I still had a chance to get it done under 35 hours, but I was so frustrated with myself and my inability to run the last 9 miles that I didn’t care what time I finished. I knew I was going to finish, and that was that! Just then, Amanda announced we were 100 yards from the finish and I had to run. Fine! “I’ll run but I hate you for making me run,” and with that I was off as I made an effort to “sprint” to the finish. My official time was 35:08:49.
A few stats from the race: 141 runners started, 86 finished, 41 dropped (DNF). Only 33 runners broke the 30-hour mark, and of those, about a third came in after the 29th hour. I was the 80th runner to finish, 21st female and 9th in my age group, 40-49.
IMTUF 100 is a gem of race! I hope to be back to run the loop clockwise in 2019, and although it was not my best performance, there’s always reason to believe that the next 100 miles will be better than the last. Isn’t that what we thrive on? I got what I was after with finishing IMTUF: a ticket into Hardrock 100 and a renewed sense of accomplishment! IMTUF also marks the ninth 100-mile run I’ve finished (minus Bighorn 100) since I first embarked upon this journey in 2014.
I’m still learning, changing and challenging myself and I don’t ever want this process to stop. I don't want normal and easy and simple. I want painful, complicated, difficult and life changing!
To my pacer Amanda: If only you knew how much I appreciate you being there for me! Running is a selfish endeavor, and to have likeminded folks who will support your sorry ass no matter what is something to cherish for life. I value your time, patience and our friendship and, most importantly, all the bullshit talk that I hope is never disclosed outside of the trails. Thanks again for having my back!
To my sponsor Hammer Nutrition: Thank you so much for making IMTUF 100 happen for me! Thanks for understanding the needs of endurance athletes and making innovative products that help us achieve our goals. In my three years of racing on team Hammer, I have never once had fueling issues, GI stress or any of the other commonly reported issues when attempting these types of events. Hammer on!
Garmin Fenix 3, Altra Women’s Lone Peak 3.5 and TIMP, FITS Socks Medium Hilker Crew, Petzl NAO Headlamp, Some random brand yoga tights, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Tee Shirt, Hammer Buff, Hammer Beanie and Salomon Advance Skin Set 12 Pack.
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost and Hammer Nutrition Fully Charged
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in one 17-ounce bottle; Hammer Gels (Peanut butter and Espresso flavors); banana, chicken broth and tortilla wraps at aid stations. Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.