The Pony Express is fast if you want it to be. There are no obstacles on the course, only miles of well-graded dirt road heading West over Dugway Pass, past ancient geode beds and Black Rock monument, to the turnaround at Fish Springs reserve. The race starts at the top of a hill, so runners almost cannot help themselves from starting fast. And that is perfect for a quick warmup in the freezing cold October desert morning.
I have been running for two years. The 2011 Pony Express 50 was my first ultra distance race. I finished in a respectable 8 hours and 30 minutes. Two years later I came back to run the hundred mile as a test of how far I had come as a runner. Inspired by the legendary 15 hour finish of J.A. at the 2011 PET 100, I wanted to see how fast I could cover one hundred miles on foot. For most of the year I had been running up and down mountains for training, culminating in my second Wasatch 100 finish. After Wasatch I changed my training to flat, long runs close to home. I needed to get faster if I was to approach the aggressive goals I had for Pony.
Early Friday morning my father drove me to the Lookout Campground where the race begins. Director Davy Crockett sends runners for both the 50 and 100 mile races out in waves according to their pace. I was to leave with the last group of runners at 8 AM. Despite missing a turnoff in the dark, my dad got me to the check-in with plenty of time to prepare for the day of running. At the tent Davy handed me my number and shirt, while I noticed the winner's trophies displayed on the table. I turned away quickly, not wanting to get attached. Although I was confident, there was no doubt I had competition in a handful of experienced and fast runners, and nothing was guaranteed.
A few minutes before countdown Davy had the small group of runners gather for last-minute briefing. Afterward I jogged over to the van for last-minute preparations when I heard my dad shout from the start line. "Matt they are starting....Three! Two! One!...." So yeah I missed the "gun". It wasn't the first time. When I finally was ready everybody was gone down the road. I ran past my dad, instructing him to meet me in five miles. It was very nice to start with no hydration pack or hand-held bottle. I felt light and springy. During the first five miles I caught up to and chatted with Jen Richards, who was seeking to bring down her previous year's 50 mile time under 8 hours. Of course she would do it by 20 minutes.
Jen Richards and Cherri Resinski, women's 50 and 100 mile champs 2013
I ran with Kendall Wimmer for a few minutes, and we discussed out strategies. He was going for the
50 mile win and boy did he bring it. He had a close call with his nearest competition later in the day, even offering aid to him in the last 10 miles, then leaving everyone in the dust for his first ultra win.
Kendall Wimmer, 50 mile champ
After Kendall I caught up to and ran with Mark Hammond for a few miles. Mark put down an impressively fast Speedgoat 50K finish this year, plus a respectable Run Rabbit Run in the Hare group. Mark's parents were supporting him from their comfortable sedan. I made a note to watch for that sedan throughout the day to know where he was behind me. Phil Lowry was behind me but with his many 100 mile finishes I was never sure how far back he would stay. Finally I caught up with Kelly Agnew, a fellow Davis County runner and very experienced ultra finisher. I gave him a nod and thumbs up.
Super Runner Kelly Agnew
Army Guy Super Hero Phil Lowry
I met my dad at 5 miles and he had my hydration pack ready for me to slip on without breaking stride, then I instructed him to go 20 miles and wait for me. Then I had the best 20 mile run of my life. The morning was perfect. My plan was to get to Simpson Springs, at mile 16.4, in two hours, then keep a steady sub 8 pace as far as possible, and as my body would allow. I was aiming to reach 50 miles in 7 hours, which would allow me to cover the back 50 miles in eight hours (4 hours per every 25 miles).
I arrived at the Simpson Springs Corral in 2:02, only 8 minutes faster than two years prior when I ran it as a newbie with no experience. However, I was feeling calm and confident about how my day was going. I told myself I could run fast and strong, but also have fun and relax. And that is what I did.
When I got to the top of that long 8 mile downhill stretch leading to the ancient riverbed, a bunch of endorphins must have kicked in because I was loving every moment and I just wanted to run fast. I wanted to see my friends who had started ahead of me. Francesco and Travis, two super Altra dudes, were running their first 50 mile distance. Garsh dang-it, it was good to see them. This was a two-jump day.
I am not a fruitarian, but all the energy I had just may have been due in part to all that fruit I ate in the 3 weeks leading up to this race. I think there is something to it. I also stayed away from fatty foods in the few weeks leading up to Pony. Then, the evening before, I took my family out to a steakhouse and treated myself to a juicy New York steak. I believe that a high protein meal with some fat the night before says to the body "Hard times are comin'."
Also drawing me down the road was the excitement of seeing Aaron Williams and his crew of pirates working to get his first 50 miles. The Williams folks are good, fun people. I was happy to see him doing well and having fun with his family. These are memories they will smile about for years and years.
Kim Brown en route to another 50 mile finish. Matt Williams is cool.
Aarrrrron Williams, Kristyarrrrn Williams, Jen Richards, Kim Brown
Dugway Pass is the only hill in the Pony Express. I ran up. Davy Crockett was at the top by himself and I could barely understand him. He had lost his voice. But I did understand when he said the next downhill will be a nice recovery run into Black Rock. He was right. I picked up again after a lull in my energy leading up to the Pass, and ran well but not terribly fast toward the half-way point. I also had passed every runner that started both races and was the first to show up at Black Rock. My dad was still crewing me and I had him go out three miles ahead and he would have a drink ready for me. I reached 50 miles in 7 hours and one minute. I needed a break so I walked the next half mile to settle my stomach. The run out to Fish Springs and the turn-around at mile 58 was slow. Heat had finally wore me down and my stomach was hurting. I turned around without any fanfare, then a few miles out began to see the runners behind me as they ran toward the turn-around. I did not see Kelly, so I assumed he had dropped. Also, I had not seen Mark's parents' sedan since the morning so I assumed he dropped too. Phil came running toward me looking terrific, maybe 4 or five miles behind me - a little too close for comfort. Cherri was also running well out toward Fish Springs. When I arrived at Black Rock 2 I could smell and see the delicious cookout food on the grill but my tummy would have none of it. My wife and boys had taken over crew duty and she had hot noodle soup ready for me as I walked out.
The sun went down and the moon had taken its place as I made the run back to Dugway Pass, much slower this time. My aggressive goal of finishing in the 15s was slipping away. I remained optimistic and thought that with the sun down I could make up lost time. I just needed to get to that pass and then I could blast downhill to the final 17 mile stretch. From the pass I did get to run fast. It felt good to run into low sixes down to the valley floor, but it was too short. For the final 17 miles I got into a run, walk, run pattern. Sometimes I could really pick it up and run for a good stretch but I was fading, and worrying about someone caching up to me. On that long, straight road I fell prey to the illusion that a runner was stalking me just a mile or two behind. A vehicle headlight that was 7 miles away looked like a headlamp approaching fast. I wondered who was behind me. On his way to the finish at the corral, Davy Crockett stopped to say hello and see how I was doing. I was surprised to hear tha Kelly was still in the race and was about 5 miles back. I missed seeing him somehow on the run back from Fish Springs.
With the finish drawing near, a sub-16 hour finish was out. I then went for the sub-17. As I usually do in these races, I picked up my pace the closer I got to that bright single light in the middle of the desert. Up one final long hill, I was relieved to see glow sticks marking the turnoff to the corral below. The run down seemed much longer now than when I had run out earlier in the morning. No matter, I was there and there was nothing to stop me. Russ Smith recorded my time as 16 hours 52 minutes and 55 seconds, then recorded the moment on digital film:
I have never won any race, that I can remember. It was sweet. It was nice to win, but what I am really happy about was covering 50 miles in 7 hours and feeling rather well doing it. That opens up a lot of possibilities for me. I know how far I have come in two years, and that makes me happy. Davy brought out the pony trophy and I could then look at it, hold it, and savor it. The Pony Express Trail 100 and Davy Crockett, and those associated with them will always occupy a place among my finest memories of this life.