out of the darkness and all the secrets still exist.

Wanna know what I love most about ultra marathons?

The people, the places and the time spent with remarkable people in those spectacular places.  And those people and places combine to make every race worth looking back on in celebration whether you ran a PR, didn't run as fast as you thought you would, got injured or just plain didn't finish.

I love trail running.  Period.

I relish running alone and also love sharing the trail with a couple of close friends, but participating in organized events ensures that you cross paths instead of just follow paths.  You revisit friendships, establish new ones and share worthwhile fellowship even with those folks you never officially meet.

What do I like the least about ultra marathons?

I greatly dislike the fact that the pressure we apply on ourselves or that we allow to have applied upon us by others leads us to dissect our performances, feel the need to answer for our "failures" and potentially lose sight of what brought us out in the first place.  So wrapped up in push-on-through sloganeering is long-distance running that accomplishing anything less leaves us disappointed, defeated and defensive.

For several days following my decision to NOT go back out for another 50 miles after completing the first of two loops at the Antelope Island Buffalo Run, I tried to determine why I let fatigue and cold drown out my resolve to keep going.  I pondered the factors that made elusive a finish line that seemed on paper to be one, relatively speaking, easily reached.

Thankfully, what I like best came back to me.

I'll start with the place before moving on to the people.

Admit it, you've never heard of Antelope Island.  Until very recently, I hadn't or, if I had, it was a random assemblage of letters, just words, not a fixed position that I could identify on a map.

But it does exist, a 28,000-acre land mass, roughly 15 miles long and 7 miles wide resting out in the Great Salt Lake just west of Layton, Utah.  If you fly into the Salt Lake airport, you will see the island beneath your wings but you'll need to drive 40+ miles north to reach the narrow causeway that leads from the mainland onto Antelope Island.

It is a strikingly barren land, nearly devoid of vegetation higher than a couple of feet off of the ground.  There are rocks aplenty and a couple of peaks that climb a few thousand feet from the 4,200 feet of elevation at the shoreline.  Those peaks are dwarfed, however, by the stunning views of the snow-capped Wasatch Front standing guard to the East.  I marveled at the isolated pockets of weather that alternately dumped snow, hid the tops of peaks entirely and then rolled back to again reveal the jagged teeth that gate the far slopes that draw skiers from all over the world.

Seemingly endless swaths of hardy grasses are inhabited by 500 head of introduced bison and their neighbors include big horn sheep, pronghorn antelope and mule deer.  Fat rabbits are chased by equally well-fed coyotes.  Eagles, falcons, meadowlarks, chukars, ducks and other shore birds abound.  With few places to hide, all of this magnificent fauna is readily on display.

The wildlife, in its understated way, seems to appreciate the beauty of Antelope Island and I certainly did too.  I have never taken as many photographs during a race as I did at this one.  I'd shuffle along, stunned for minutes on end by the sweeping views before remembering that I had a camera and could make vain attempts to capture some of what I was seeing.  After snapping a few pics, I'd remind myself that I was "racing" and would zip the camera into its waterproof pouch and tuck it back into a vest pocket only to want to pull it immediately out again upon topping the crest of a rise or rounding another bend.

The wind pummeled the island all day (and all night) long, constantly reaffirming that it along with its ally, water, had shaped the landscape at which I gaped.   Nothing had ever nor would ever stand in its way, certainly not my outclassed jacket, and I never questioned that it reigned superior on the island regardless of what bureaucratic body claimed ownership.

If I were handed a piece of paper and told to draw the singletrack trails of my daydreams (AND if I possessed any ability to draw), those on Antelope Island may well have been what I'd have produced. While not carved naturally by the wind, the trails looked as though they'd always been there, that the land couldn't exist without them.  It could, of course, but the illusion was convincing.  There were rocks, here and there, to be wary of, but mostly it was rolling, forgiving terrain that felt so good underfoot you wished it would go on forever.

On the east side of the island where the land flattened out and hugged the shoreline, the long lines of sight made it feel as though the trails would, in fact, go on forever.  Even there, though, where it was mentally and physically challenging to endlessly turn the legs over and keep the mind from believing that no progress was being made, the land was still beautiful.  The lake rose with the wind and small swells lapped the edges of the island.  Here the Wasatch loomed most closely and their many contours revealed countless canyons across the water, silently emitting invitations for backcountry exploration.  The skies were boundless.

All was lovely.

As were the people spending the day on the island with me.

My dear friend Kelly Agnew had remained in sight during the initial miles of the day but had settled into the dogged pursuit and eventual successful securing of another 100-mile buckle and an impressive 9th place finish despite being far from full health.  I saw and even heard little of him after those first few hours but felt his presence throughout and cherished the opportunity to venture out the next morning to see him into the finish.

Shortly after the race began, I'd overheard a fellow runner, Jeremy Suwinski, dare to credit a nearby buffalo as having a better beard than mine.  He, sadly, was right, so, after a half-hearted defense, I settled into conversation that lasted for a few miles.  Discussing work situations provided reminder again of how blessed I am to have stumbled, blindly, into my position at Backcountry Edge, a position that had played no small role in my even being on the Antelope Island course in the first place.

On a switchback a few miles later, I came upon a woman and, just ahead of her, an older gentleman.  That man turned out to be 81-year old Grant Holdaway, the woman his daughter.  Grant was attempting to become the oldest individual to ever complete a 100-mile race.  He'd "retired" five years earlier, having finished a 100 at 76, but boredom, I suppose, had called his number and lured him from the sidelines back out onto the trail.  He, like me, only made it around the island once but if you dare say he ONLY went 50 miles, you need to learn a thing or two about perspective.

Another "old man", 45-year old Karl Meltzer did go 100 miles and he did so quickly.  His 14:34 finish shaved an hour off of the course record he already held and earned him his 35th 100-mile win.  Thirty five 100-mile wins?  Yep.  In case you're wondering, that is more wins, far more wins, than anyone else has ever notched at that distance.  It was a treat to get to see him do work and the memory of him completing the race at 2:30 AM to the muted applause of the then 5 or so fully-conscious people in the start/finish tent while I drowsed in the corner of the room is foggy but revered.

All day long, my beautiful wife, Lindsay, and her partner in crime, Jo Agnew, seemed to appear whenever I most needed someone to lift my spirits.  Despite the unshakable fatigue, I really didn't hit any desperate low points but their appearances were always a boost.  Possessing as big a heart as any I've ever known, nurse Lindsay was, not surprisingly, thrust into work at the start/finish line aid station, especially after I'd formally dropped down to the 50-mile distance and taken off my shoes.  Despite not ever having attended a long-distance race and being without knowledge of the running vocabulary that most event participants assume everyone "speaks", Lindsay toiled throughout the night and was still caring for runners and their family members long after the sun came up on Saturday.  The sleepless hours of the night took their toll and Lindsay is sick as the proverbial dog at the moment but I sincerely doubt that she'd have approached her duties any differently if she'd have known how she'd end up.  Dynamo Jo juggled the job of crewing for Kelly with helping out at the aid station all night too.  Those two women were amazing and the fact that neither of them were originally slated to "man" that aid station makes me wonder what runners would've experienced there without them.  I'm glad no one found out.

I also got to spend some time catching up with Missy Berkel who I'd met at TransRockies last August and though she was having a tough day herself, slowed by a troublesome knee that was giving her fits in the cold, she soldiered on and scored a 50-mile finish for which she should hold her head up high.

The venerable Roch Horton masterfully ran the show at the Black Diamond-hosted Lower Frary aid station, serving up pierogies, hot chocolate and broth (bROCHth) that pulled me out of an initial bout of wicked chills and was almost alluring enough to coax me back out into the night for another visit.  Adam Cox, a Black Diamond employee volunteering at the aid station, even parted with a pair of tights to better equip me for the wind and cold that settled in after nightfall.  Even though I did finally succumb to the elements, I certainly wouldn't have made it 50 miles without all the help and encouragement I received at Lower Frary.

There were so many other great encounters and I'm sure I am forgetting many of them, but  I would be remiss if I failed to mention the dry humor and quiet everything-is-under-control demeanor of race director Jim Skaggs.  It was a treat to be able to meet him the day before the race and help unload provisions for a weekend of racing (there are also 50-mile, 50K and 25K versions of the race that kick off the day after the 100-mile race's Friday start).  His manner is the perfect balance of no-nonsense organization and empathetic runner himself.

The most amazing personal experience of the race came as I rounded the last turn to trudge up the short hill leading to the start/finish tent at which I already knew my night would end. Quintin Barney, a man I'd met earlier in the day and with whom I'd leapfrogged back and forth all day long, had just caught up with me again and had someone special waiting to escort him into the aid station.  His precious daughter, Kara, was beaming in the dark with a smile that I instantly recognized as the one her father had offered up to me repeatedly during the preceding hours, just as he did to every other person that he met along the way.  Having staggered in out of the night and more or less collapsed in one corner of the tent, I needed a moment or two to realize that Kara had come over to ask how I was doing and, turning my head to glance across the room, I saw Quintin looking my direction with genuine concern for my answer to Kara's question.  I was touched by the gesture and had no doubt of its sincerity.  The love the two of them had for each other was so apparent and my heart ached for my sleeping daughters back home in Pennsylvania. Oh, how I hope to have similar moments on the trail with Lily and Piper some day, but, most of all, I hope that we're as close with one another and comfortable with our love as Quintin and Kara obviously are whether our shared moments do or do not include trail running.

Trail runners are at their best, undoubtedly, while they're actually running trails.  Away from those trails, it's easy to digress to the holding up of trophies and baubles, telling tales of accomplishments, making proclamations of what we're running next, all of which starts to sound an awful lot like the posturing and positioning reminiscent of high school locker rooms, locker rooms populated by self-conscious boys sorely lacking the confidence they are trying desperately to convince you they possess.

Completing a course, I don't care how long and challenging it may be, is not coping with true tragedy.  Crossing the line is not salvaging a damaged but worth-fighting-for relationship.  Making the cutoff is by no means overcoming life-threatening illness.

And not continuing on to the end of the race is, frankly, just not as big a deal as we make it out to be.  Not in comparison to remembering the gift of a healthy body, the privilege of recreation, of movement and the pure joy of shared experience.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who shared those gifts, privileges and joy with me this past weekend.

I'm short a buckle, but it'll barely be missed among the memories.


  1. The time we shared during this race weekend will always be remembered fondly. I'm really happy that you and Lindsay were able to come out for it and Jo and I are eager for the time that you guys get out here for good. It's destiny.

  2. I really, really like your report Leon. The ultra crowd and the experiences are great. I enjoyed being out there almost as much as if I'd been racing myself, maybe more.

    1. BJ! How did I forget to work you and your Mom into my blah, blah, blahing? A travesty! It was a momentary oversight, I can assure you, my friend.

  3. Wow, gave me goosebumps. You summarized everything so perfectly. It was great to see you out on the trails. Well done!

    1. Thanks, Cory...got my own goosebumps from the photo of you leaping across the finish...be well!

  4. Steller. It was great to spend a little time out there with you and to share some kind words inside Roch's aid-station. (I was there with you while you sat and accepted the offer of some tights from a volunteer.) Hope we can run together again soon.

    1. I remember you for sure, Mike! Wish I coulda/woulda/shoulda shuffled along with you all night! Happy trails til we meet again...thanks for reading!

  5. LEON!!!! Why do you go and make me cry?! I love you and I love your love for your family, the trails, your friends and your outlook on life in general. I'm so glad you and Lindsay were here with us last weekend and can not wait to see you guys again. You're right in what you said to Kelly...you guys ARE partly here still, where you always are...in our hearts!! LOVE YOU GUYS!!

    1. Sorry? A little cry does ya' good. Hopefully I made you smile too. I'm trying to figure out how to beam all that I love from "here" to "there". If only!

  6. Hey Leon – I met you briefly out on the island, I think Kelly introduced us. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your race report. You captured a lot of what draws me to ultra trail running and what keeps me coming back for more.

    1. Awesome, Curtis! Thanks for reading and for sharing...I appreciate it. Congrats, by the way, on a smoking 50 miles on Saturday...a PR, right? Well done.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your gift with us. This is really beautiful Leon and your pictures are stunning. Now I have another runner to blog stalk, bwah ha ha ha ha ha. It was great to meet you, your glorious beard and Lindsay... not in that order.

    1. And thank you. I'm pretty disappointed in myself, actually, for failing to weave you and BJ into the story, as you both were certainly players on that stage and not to have been overlooked. Appreciate you both forgiving my oversight, reading along and providing such positive feedback. You're both terrific and I'm psyched to know that you're part of an ever-widening circle of like-minded friends. Be well and stalk away!

  8. You are the Karl Meltzer of writers! I ran the 50, but took the Friday early start option. I enjoyed being a total poser. Around mile 40, knowing my goal time had come and gone, I seriously was considering doing a second lap. Less stressful way of achieving my first 100. I changed my mind when a wrong turn in the dark added 2 extra miles. I was deflated. Shortly after that, Quintin Barney gave me the most precious commodity a runner has when out there--his energy. He put his arm around me, and offered the kindest words of encouragement. He is genuinely one of the nicest human beings I have ever met. Experiences like that is why I love ultras and (un)fortunately will do another one.:) Erin Harding

  9. ps, that 40-yr old virgin is my husband, not me! haha

  10. Thanks for reading/sharing, Erin! Was your wrong turn continuing out onto the short out-and-back. If so, I believe I remember you. Sorry to hear it laid you low, but it sounds like Quinton made a positive impact on you too! Wrong turns are just part of the journey...site-seeing I like to call it. Be well!