Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
The Pony Express Trail in total is 1890 miles long starting in St. Joseph, Missouri, and ending in Sacramento, California. Riders ran the route, relay style, in ten days. It only operated for 18 months, April 1860 until October 1861, before telegraphs replaced it.
There were 157 pony stations along the route and each horse ran approximately 10 miles before the rider swapped out horses. There were 500 horses. The horses were not actually ponies. They averaged 14 hands and 200 lbs. There were 80 riders. Each rider rode between 70-100 miles of the route and could not weigh more than 125 lbs.
William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, was the most famous rider. He helped build some of the stations, and then was hired as a rider at age 15. He made one of the longest runs when his replacement rider was killed by Indians. He rode 322 miles nonstop over 21 hours 40 minutes.
Robert Haslam was also a well-known rider. He ran 120 miles in 8 hours and 20 minutes, while wounded, carrying President Lincoln’s inaugural address. He also made the return trip after nine hours of rest. When he arrived back where he started, Indians had killed the stationmaster, so he continued and rode 380 miles.
It took a lot of grit to be a Pony Express rider, and the ultrarunners who run the Pony Express 100 capture the same spirit.
The sun light fell on the earth like opening the blinds on the first morning of spring. A dust cloud moved across the flat open land planted with anthills and sagebrush. White and chestnut wild horses emerge from the dust. They toss their mains and their nostrils flare as they come to a stop before cantering across the rocky road to take up the run on the side among the splotches of red, brown, and yellow across the plain and toward the peaks jutting from the ground.
The Pony Express 100 is an amazing experience because of the history and the unique setup of the race. Knowing the stories of the riders and stationmaster of each of the stations you run through brings the sagebrush and anthill strewn land alive.
Part of the Pony experience is bringing your own crew to act as your stationmasters. They help you change out your gear and keep hydrated in the desert sun. Pony Express is the most family and friend involved 100-mile event out there. They can see you at any time, your crew can reach you whenever you need, and you can have a pacer at any point by bike or on foot. The race is held over fall break, so kids are out of school and can participate or not as much as their age and demeanor allow.
There is only one aid station along the 100-mile route. It’s at mile 50. There you will find Davey Crockett, the race director, handing out metals to the fifty-mile finishers. Argentine barbeque is dished up for all the runners and their crew and each bite alone is worth the 50-mile trek.
Davey makes the race better every year. This year he added “nearly” real time tracking on the internet. That may not seem like a huge deal in this day and age, but if you know where the Pony Express is held you begin to appreciate the difficulty of doing that. Cellular service dwindles to one or two providers at Lookout Pass. Once you reach Dugway Pass, it’s a dead zone. There is nothing, but ham radios and (in my experience) spotty satellite phone reception.
My dad and I woke up at 3:30 a.m., and snuck out of the camp trailer leaving my mom and my thirteen-year-old son, Sky, asleep. We dodged cottontails on the dirt road as we drove the 16 miles from camp to the starting line at Lookout Pass. I began my 100-mile journey along the Pony Express route at 5:00 am. It was about forty degrees Fahrenheit. Starting times are staggered at 5, 6, 7, and 8 a.m.
My dad met me at mile five. He filed my handheld with water and took my jacket. I ran the first ten miles or so with the race director of Salt Flats 100, Vince, and a few other guys. We talked about the epic storm at Salt Flats 100. Vince said he talked to the Bureau of Land Management who said that it was one of those storms that only happens every one hundred years. He went out to pick up the port-o-potties on Wednesday after the race and the wind had pushed them 2.5 miles.
While I ran, my dad went back to the trailer to get some breakfast. He met me just outside our camp at Simpson Springs (mile 16.5) by then I was the second runner. Ahead of me was the Jester, who I would get to know as we played leapfrog over the next 50 miles. I remained first or second runner until about mile 92 when Sherrie Shaw (First place 20:15) passed me. She had started at 8 a.m.
The Jester, Ed, has run eighty-three 100-mile races. He is attempting to break the world record for most 100s in a year. Pony Express was his 30th 100 of the year breaking the men’s world record of 29. He had to finish Pony in 22 hours to make his flight to California to run another 100 Sunday! The women’s world record is 36, which Ed intended to beat by four races. He finished in 21 hours and 42 minutes. one marathon finished, three to go.
We saw the wild horses along the course between the Riverbed Station and Topaz Well. They were off in the distance, but still such an inspiration.
My dad met me every five miles, making sure I had everything I needed. We reached Blackrock Station, mile 48 at 2:30 p.m. From there we went ten miles out to Fish Springs (the turnaround) and then back to Blackrock (68 miles), which we reached at 7:30.
two marathons finished, two to go.
We met up with my night crew, Swiss Miss and Larry, around mile 62. Miss’s cousin, Jon, was a surprise crewmember along with his charge, the puppy Constantine. I was so grateful to see them, because I was struggling at that point in the race. I had given a lot up to that point and I knew I would have to slow down to be able to finish. Miss paced me for the next 15 miles alternating between walking and running. Jon and Constantine paced on their bike on and off with Miss. She was wonderful. She told me all the things I had missed since I had come out to the starting line: Friends getting engaged and busting sneaking domestic violence perpetrators in closets.
Melissa and Larry were supposed to take over crewing for the night shift, so my dad could sleep, but my dad wanted to stay on and see me through to the end. I marvel at how much my relationship with my dad has changed over the years. When I was a teen, we could barely stand the sight of one another and now he is my crew chief for the Pony Express 100 catering to my needs every few miles.
Three marathons finished, one to go.
We were way ahead of schedule. I called J$ on the satellite phone to find out where he was. We spoke for a minute before the phone cut off. He met us at mile 78 at about 11:00 p.m. and took over pacing duty from Swiss Miss.
We had our crew meeting us every three miles. It was very dark. The moon was hidden behind the surrounding mountains. My calves were tight causing pain on the inside of my left knee. J$ rubbed them out every three miles. At each stop, they had a chair out waiting for me and something warm to drink as the temperatures dropped. My dad and Larry made broth and coffee through the night.
J$ and I would see our crew stopped on the side of the road ahead of us. Each time, we would think, “Oh, they’re only a quarter mile away.” And each time, they would get farther and farther away, the closer we got. They swore they were not moving. I’m not convinced.
By the time we got to 95 miles, I was ready to be finished. I was seeing three moons in the sky and the stars were clusters of dots rather than one single star. I saw signs on the side of the road that disappeared by the time we reached them.
After 24 hours and 15 minutes, I crossed the finish line of the Pony Express 100.