Type Bear 100 into your search engine and you’ll be greeted with a shining golden logo against a black background. “The Bear 100” it reads. “36 hours of Indian Summer.”
Wow, you might be tempted to think . . . that sounds like one amazing race. However, it was no surprise to me when the 2019 Bear 100 delivered anything but 36 hours of Indian Summer.
I choose the Bear as my first 100 based solely on the location. Logan, Utah, the starting town of this iconic race, was also very close to where I was raised, and where I attended high school, so I knew a thing or two about mountain weather in late September.
What I didn’t know much about was, well, quite literally everything else about running 100 miles, or running in Utah for that matter (I’m now a proud east coast runner!).
Following my second attempt at finishing this race in September of this year (2021), I have put together a list of lessons learned from my two Bear 100 experiences.
My Bear 100 History
But first, a recap.
2019 was my first attempt every at the 100 mile distance. I was eager to jump in head first and had a great race, until mile 35.
At this aid station, while resting my feet, I started vomiting for no apparent reason. I hadn’t been nauseous, my fuel and hydration had been ok, but it left me weak and unable to stomach any calories and very little water for the next few hours.
Then, just around the time I had finally gotten my energy back, the skies opened up and it proceeded to downpour rain while dropping below freezing overnight. I DNF’d at mile 69 after missing a cut-off while sliding through knee-deep mud and getting soaked and chilled to the bone.
The year 2020 was supposed to be my redemption year, but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented me from flying out to Utah for the race, so I was particularly excited for the 2021 run.
However, five months before race day I fell during a training run and broke my ankle.
This severely limited my training but I still showed up at the starting line!
This time I struggled with being undertrained, dehydration, and the unexpected heat and found myself chasing cut-off times again.
I DNF’d at mile 65 after a mileage discrepancy led me to miscalculate my pace.
13 Lessons I learned from my Bear 100 experiences
Each time I run the Bear I continue to gather knowledge, which I view as putting tools in my toolbox for my inevitable finish!
Here are 13 things I’ve learned from my two attempts:
#1: Don’t bother looking at the weather.
I’m only partially kidding.
Of course, it’s important and useful to have an idea about what the weatherman intends to throw at you, but it is impossible to accurately predict late fall weather over 100 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss!).
Expect the weather to range from hot in the sunny lower elevations of the course to downright frigid in the high elevation valleys at night.
Dress in layers so that you can adjust even between aid stations.
#2: If the weather says it’s going to snow, it’s going to snow.
I learned this lesson in 2019, when the sun beat on us for the whole first day and then right around midnight the freezing rain began.
That freezing rain eventually became snow.
Despite the tag line referenced in the intro, looking at the history of the Bear, you can expect rain/snow/mud or smoke to interrupt your Bear 100 experience approximately every other year.
#3: Don’t expect much communication from the race directors.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bear 100 is an incredible race put on by well-versed race directors, but they are there to put on a great race, not hold your hand through it.
You can find all the information you need on the website, through the Bear 100 community on Facebook, or in the few emails you do receive (make sure you check your spam folder!).
If you do need something though, don’t hesitate to reach out.
The race director crew tends to be responsive to emails.
#4: Be sure your crew is familiar with the area.
As a mountain point-to-point race, the Bear is not a straightforward course for crews to navigate. Having good map and navigation skills is a must because cell service is basically non-existent at most aid stations.
Also be aware that crews are only allowed at certain aid stations, and some of those stations are over 20 miles apart! In addition to knowing the course, be sure that your crew knows you, and knows how to tend to you.
#5: Don’t depend solely on your crew.
As referenced in the previous point, it’s wise to not depend solely on your crew. Sometimes things happen like they get lost, or their dog has a porcupine encounter, and they don’t make it in time to meet you.
Have drop bags in any place that you will absolutely need something, like warm clothes. There are also some long stretches between crew-accessible aid stations, especially in the beginning of the race, so utilizing your drop bags will mean you have access to what you need.
#6: Don’t take mileages too seriously.
I think this is an important lesson not just for the Bear 100, but for any ultra-distance race.
Mileage discrepancies can come from a number of different things, including GPS signal, detours, aid station stops, etc.
This is important to remember in the middle of the night when your GPS watch says you should be at the aid station but you aren’t there yet.
#7: Train on mountains.
Take one look at the elevation profile for this race and you will know why I suggest this. This race is a mountain race, none of it is flat, just slightly more gradual up and down. If you live local to the course, spend some time learning sections of it, but save some surprises for race day!
If you aren’t local, I suggest spending as much time on steep climbs, but also areas with trail that you can easily run. It’s always a challenge to translate the technical terrain of the White Mountains to the buttery switch-back trails of the Bear River Range.
#8: You’re not DFL (Dead F***ing Last), even if you think you are.
In a point-to-point mountain race like the Bear 100, it doesn’t take long before the runners will be spread out over many, many miles!
Especially in the dark of the night, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one out there.
If you’re not a fan of the dark (like yours truly), I highly recommend having night – hearty pacers to join you.
Not only will they help the long, dark hours pass quickly (there are approximately 12 hours of darkness in late September in northern Utah), they can help keep you safe by ensuring you are eating and drinking properly. They are also great alarm clocks when the inevitable urge for a quick trail nap strikes.
#9: Don’t fear the trail nap!
Speaking of the trail nap, don’t be afraid of it – sometimes, despite your best efforts at consuming caffeine and eating enough throughout the day, you are too tired to continue at 3 am. This is where the trail nap comes in.
When you’re too tired to safely continue walking, tell your pacer to set a timer for 5 minutes and find a comfy-looking log or rock. (Trust me, there are many good trail bed options on the course – even in the pouring rain!).
It’s amazing what 5 minutes of really solid sleep can do for your energy and mood.
#10: Drink more water than you think you need.
Welcome to Utah, this is the desert and, especially if you’re an east coaster (or east coast transplant like me!) your body is going to attempt to shrivel up like dried mango.
Practice your hydration strategy during training and be sure to keep yourself well hydrated in the weeks leading up to the race. This is especially true if you are travelling and wearing a mask for many hours.
#11: Don’t make your pack too heavy.
This was a hard lesson I learned in 2021. My crew continued to comment on how I had one of the biggest packs of all the runners on the course.
Coming from a wilderness medicine and survival background, I do think it is important to be prepared. However, spending the time fine-tuning the necessities you will need to carry will save you energy and time on the relentless climbs and long miles.
#12: Learn how to control the uncontrollable.
Things like nausea, blisters and chafing can come seemingly out of nowhere, but not knowing how to handle these things can quickly end your race.
Practice how to handle these situations while you’re doing your training runs so you can put them to use should you need them during the Bear 100.
#13: Enjoy the view!
The Bear 100 is one of the most visually spectacular ultramarathons you will find. As you cover the course you will move between dry, desert landscapes filled with sagebrush, to colorful aspen groves and mountain peaks.
You will get to see 100 miles of remote trail – much of it relatively untouched and protected by the wilderness act. Right at the end you will see Bear Lake, and it will pull you all the way to the finish.
The Bear 100 is a unique and beautiful ultramarathon. If you’re considering heading out to Utah for your Bear 100 buckle, my biggest piece of advice is to enjoy the journey because each experience is completely unique.