‘Everyone thinks about quitting’: Utah runners are put to the test during the Salt Flats 100 mile endurance race

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Doolan walks the last mile of the Salt Flats 100 Endurance Run, Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Wendover • After more than 24 hours on her feet, Melissa Soper could see her destination off in the seeming infinite desert flatness, a banner strung between two aluminum rods, getting bigger against the horizon, backlit by the sun rising.

The 39-year-old mother of four began moaning as she approached and then ran under the banner, becoming the ninth finisher and the first woman to complete the 2018 Salt Flats Endurance Run on Saturday.

“This was the stupidest thing ever. I’m so glad I’m done. I’ve never puked so much in my life,” she exclaimed between gasps.

Rarely does pain feel this good.

The Salt Flats Endurance Run, which starts and finishes at the Bonneville Speedway, is a relative newcomer to the growing sport of ultra-running, raced at distances exceeding, sometimes far exceeding, the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. The goal is not necessarily winning, but surviving.

“The pace we run is slower than a marathon. Your heart rate is in control. For me, on the Salt Flats, there is a stretch were you go through mud flats for seven miles. Your feet sink in and you start wearing out and the sun starts to set and you think about surviving the night,” said Davy Crockett, a legendary figure in the sport who directs another 100-mile race in Utah named for the Pony Express Trail.

Utah now hosts eight 100-mile foot races, including the Wasatch 100, which has become such a premier event that it requires a lottery to get in.

Crockett, who lives in Saratoga Springs, has completed 97 races, but had to sit out this year’s Salt Flats to recover from an injury. At 59, he wants to keep racing until he completes his 100th 100-mile race, an accomplishment achieved by only 10 runners.

The Salt Flats race is the brainchild of Vince Romney, a former non-racer who got hooked on ultra-running after competing in the Speed Goat at Snowbird on a whim a decade ago.

“I didn’t care for the marathon, but when I heard about running all day in the mountains, I was interested in that,” he said. Romney’s idea for a course was inspired by the Donner-Reed party that passed through in 1846 following an alleged shortcut to California’s gold field.

The key aid station is set up at Hastings Junction, where the ill-fated Donner party made the decision to keep going rather than turn back to Salt Lake City.

Nearly 100 runners raced this year, about half running the full 100 miles, according to race director Sarah Patino.

The Salt Flats course, which also featured 50-mile and 50-kilometer distances, encircles the Silver Island Mountains that seem to float above the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Alex Doolan finished not far ahead of Soper, but had to walk the last few miles. As the sky lightened, he exited the mountains and strolled past the last of 14 aid station, which doubled as an all-night party tent complete with karaoke and campfire, to his wife’s car.

“I’m dropping out,” he said plopping into a camp chair. “Just kidding.”

He removed his shoes and socks, revealing blistered toes wrapped in duct tape.

“I’m feeling better than I thought,” Doolan said. “It’s mostly painful. I thought I would be hallucinating.”

Equipped with fresh footwear, he headed back out for the last 3.7 miles across the salt-encrusted plain as dawn broke.

In the tent, festooned in honor of Cinco de Mayo, race winner Matthew Van Horn was napping after completing the race around 1 a.m. in just under 18 hours.

The 47-year-old Farmington photographer was three hours off last year’s record-setting performance of Mark Hammond, but he was still two hours ahead of the next finisher. He whiled away the remainder of the night putting the karaoke machine to use, singing Journey’s “Lights,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” along with some metal favorites before falling asleep in a lawn chair.

“I’m no Steve Perry,” he said when he woke up. He completed the race with his brother Peter, who paced and kept him on course, marked with colored flags.

“It was beautiful desert, stark deadly desert,” he said. “The heat got to me. It’s a hard course, so exposed, no shade.”

Friday’s 80-degree heat took a toll on all the runners. The course featured only about 4,000 feet of accumulated vertical gain, but the climbs were arranged in a way that maximized their impact, particularly a low-angle, yet interminable climb at mile 90, Van Horn said.

“You have to want it enough to stick with it. Everyone thinks about quitting. You go through the range of emotions and physical conditions. You feel low, but it goes away and you feel great,” he said.

He looked forward to reaching the aid stations, staffed with volunteers who make ultra races possible.

Soper wanted to quit at 50 miles, but her husband convinced her to get to the next aid station. Having gotten past the halfway mark, she cleared a psychological barrier that enable her to keep going. But then she was hit with dry heaves.

“I ran on empty from 50 on. I couldn’t keep anything down,” said Soper, who was accompanied by her friend Rachel Moody for the last 38 miles.

“My lungs will hate me for days after this,” she told her husband Chad waiting at the finish. It turned out Soper competed with bronchitis, against the advise of her doctor. But her pains were awarded with a pair running shoes for the next race.