Danny Duke checked his weather apps multiple times on Saturday morning, as he always does before heading out to run. “I’m kind of a weirdo when it comes to the weather,” the South Jordan man said.
He looked at radar images, so he knew there would be a storm. He checked the forecasts for Farmington and Layton, the cities closest to the race he was about to run. But he wondered what it might look like as he gained elevation over the course of his first 50-mile race, and wondered how much snow he might see at the top of Francis Peak.
Hours later, Duke was one of 87 ultrarunners fighting the howling winds, 12-18 inches of snow and “near whiteout conditions” that prompted search and rescue efforts in the Wasatch Mountain range Saturday.
“In Utah, we have storms all the time, but oftentimes the storm comes and goes in an hour,” Duke said. “This one kind of sat on us.”
A few runners were treated for hypothermia and released at the scene. One runner suffered minor injuries from a fall and was also treated and released. Officials were glad that was all they encountered Saturday.
“It could have turned out very bad for a lot of those folks,” Davis County Sheriff Kelly Sparks said Sunday morning.
‘Ugly at the top’
The DC Peaks 50 was being held for the first time, a 50-mile race that featured an 11,700-foot vertical gain and an 8,600-foot descent over a mix of mountain trails and service roads. On Saturday, the first runners started onto the course at about 4:30 a.m. Stephanie Coleman, of Layton, was among them. Coleman had run multiple marathons, plus a 50K, but was embarking on her first 50-miler. And after looking at the weather, she knew she needed an early start.
“I wanted as much time as possible,” she said. “I knew it was going to be ugly at the top.”
Snow, however, is rarely a deterrent for experienced Utah ultrarunners. There was a “conga line,” as Coleman described, of about 20 runners, all in good spirits, as they made an ascent early in the race.
“It was really fun and we were all just joking and laughing and happy,” Coleman said. “Just joking about how of course this would happen in the mountains in Utah. It’s just what happens. We were all expecting all sorts of crazy weather.”
But as Coleman and others got above 7,000 feet, the weather started to turn. Racers were hit with gusts of winds up to 30 or 40 mph. Rain turned to snow, and snow turned into a problem.
A search and rescue team from the Davis County Sheriff’s Office was called about 9:30 a.m. Over the next 10 hours, searchers covered the course on foot as well as with four-wheel-drive vehicles and snowmobiles to get all the runners off the mountain.
By 2:45 p.m., all of the runners had been accounted for and were safely off of the mountain, officials said. It took until about 7 p.m. for all search and rescue workers to safely make their way back down the terrain.
“Yesterday was very rough. Outwardly, I was trying to stay calm, but I had a knot in my stomach,” race director Mick Garrison said Sunday. “A lot of people would say a race is successful based on how many people signed up or how many finished the race. This race was a success because the backup plans were carried out and everyone got home safe.”
Heavy snowfall came as a surprise
Garrison said Saturday’s conditions came as a surprise to all.
“We knew there was going to be rain. We looked specifically at Francis Peak and we knew there might be some snow. But not like this,” he said. “People are upset with us that we should have known, we should have seen the forecast. We did, and we talked to the runners about it. But nowhere did it say anything about 18 inches in an hour.”
In a statement, the Davis County sheriff said, “Venturing onto the mountains, trails, and bodies of water at this time of year can be dangerous because the weather changes rapidly. Even a mild rain in the valley can translate to blizzard conditions at higher elevations.”
Duke had expected maybe 2-3 inches of snow at the top. “Snow isn’t too much of an issue for that kind of running community,” he said. But as he made his way to the first of three peaks along the course, heavy snow and fog made it difficult to make sense of the route as they scrambled up boulders toward the top. Duke and another runner made phone calls to ask for directions. That’s when they were told the race was being canceled.
Duke debated trekking forward, toward one of the race checkpoints and one of his drop bags filled with warmer clothes and supplies. But he ultimately decided to turn back and head toward the shoreline trail, where a friend was waiting to pick him up.
Others had a more difficult time.
Daniel Combs, 42, thought he had prepared for the cold. An experienced runner who lives in Tempe, Ariz., Coleman wore a stocking cap, compression pants, a jacket and gloves, but still, he felt his hands and feet getting numb as the weather got worse.
“I was tripping over myself,” he said.
As hypothermia set in Saturday, Combs felt confused. He stumbled in the snow and had to be helped up multiple times. With the winds gusting and blowing knee-deep snow over the trail, the group of runners who had taken Combs in struggled to find their way, even with the route data on one man’s watch.
“I thought I was going to die,” Combs said. “I seriously had the thought, ‘This is now how I pictured myself dying.’”
Elsewhere on the trail, Kelcey McClung Stowell, a runner from Ogden, began to worry “because it was brutally cold,” and she was wearing only pants, a shirt and a jacket.
“As it got colder and colder, it was getting scary,” Stowel told The New York Times. “The snow was getting so deep, we couldn’t see the trail. It was coming down like hail, and my hood froze to my face.”
“I started shivering, but there was nothing we could do but get to the next aid station,” Stowell said. “So we just kept moving.”
Stephanie Coleman kept pushing on, too. She had considered turning back as the snow got worse, but thought the terrain might be too steep. And she knew she couldn’t stay put and wait for help.
“I’m fairly experienced. I backcountry ski, too. I knew I needed to just keep moving,” Coleman said. “I knew exactly where I was going, so I just kept moving.”
Coleman had debated even starting the DC Peaks 50 on Saturday morning, but she pushed ahead because her sister was also running. Coleman had also been debating what to wear Saturday. In the end, the Layton woman settled on leggings — to avoid scratching her legs on the overgrown brush — a light jacket and a white poncho her husband had purchased and insisted she wear.
“I didn’t want to wear it because it was super dorky looking,” she said Sunday with a laugh. “He forced me.”
Becca Frei, Coleman’s sister, had anticipated heavy snow at high evaluations and wore rain pants and a rain jacket. As the snowfall got heavy Saturday, she was more concerned with her race time than her own safety.
”I was mostly concerned for my fellow runners who weren’t prepared,” she said. “A lot of non-U.S. races have a required gear list for ultramarathons. I don’t know why a lot of U.S. races don’t. But it’s not part of the American running culture.”
Coleman was glad to be wearing layers as she saw other racers battling the elements in T-shirts and shorts. She made her way down to a first aid station but kept moving after seeing the frenzied scene and overwhelmed volunteers.
“They didn’t have all of their supplies because they couldn’t even get their cars up there because it was too snowy,” Coleman said. “It was crazy. She was taking our bib numbers so we could be tracked and telling us to keep moving.”
A few miles later, a volunteer in a truck picked up Coleman and some other racers and brought them down the mountain.
“Once I got down and saw, it was a little scarier,” she said. “There was a legit relief station, ambulances, police. That’s when the gravity of it set in on me. I just realized, ‘Whoa, this was more serious than I thought.’”
In all, there were six aid stations along the racecourse, organizers said. Each one was captained by an experienced ultramarathoner leading a team of six to eight people.
“I know ultrarunners sound a little crazy, but they’re all well trained and prepared for these types of things,” Garrison said. “The contingency plan went into place. Search and rescuers were amazing. Just like that, people were up there helping.”
By the time Combs and his group found the aid station, their struggles had slowed them down enough that the tent was tattered and empty except for three orange Gatorade coolers.
“We were some of the last ones on the mountain,” he said.
Combs had been on the course for roughly seven hours and had traveled 13.87 miles before he ran into a search and rescue vehicle. They quickly took him inside the vehicle, stripped off his wet clothes and fed him Swedish Fish as they tried to fight the effects of his hypothermia. He was also treated for multiple falls he had taken, tripping on the trail and crashing into rocks.
“I’ve still got some tingling and numbness, scrapes and bruises,” Combs said Sunday as he drove back to Arizona, but nothing that will prevent him from running in the New York City Marathon next month. “Other than that, I’m alive.”
Finishing the race
By Sunday morning, the shock and the cold had worn off for many of the runners.
“The outreach from all of the runners and the running community has been so positive,” Garrison said in the sunshine at Tunnel Springs Park in North Salt Lake. “They’ve said, ‘Please keep doing this race.’ They want to finish it next week.”
A few dozen runners gathered at the park a day after the race to take pictures at the race’s finish line, pick up their drop bags, eat and swap stories.
“Everybody knows the risk when they run these races,” said Tim Sanchez, a seasoned ultrarunner from Layton who raced Saturday.
“It’s what you sign up for,” added runner Chance Young, of Ogden.
And many said they would sign up for it all over again.
“I’m feeling good,” Duke said. “Probably better than if I had run the full 50 miles.”
Added Coleman, “I would run it again.”