Waterford endurance runner finishes 100-miler, sets goal for Grand Slam endurance racesMar 24, 2021 02:56PM ● By Julie Slama
Waterford School junior Howard Wang, left, and his coach, Tyler Waterhouse, show their belt buckles from the Bear100. (Tyler Waterhouse/Waterford School)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
This spring, Waterford School junior Howard Wang is training for races. Not a typical 5K or three-miler, although he does run those with his school cross country team, but rather endurance races.
Flashback to this past fall.
Bear 100. It’s described as “a cool autumn loop through the pines, golden aspen and red maples” with an average elevation of 7,350 feet and a gain of 22,518 feet.
At age 18, Wang became the second youngest to complete the 100-mile endurance race that traverses the Wasatch and Bear River mountain ranges; he finished in 196th place. He completed his first 100-mile race.
“The 100 is definitely different than a 50,” he said afterward. “It was a good day. The weather was perfect, and everything was good. The only thing about that made it hard was the distance and the elevation.”
Few people think about running 100 miles, let alone racing it. The race began Friday, Sept. 24 and Wang finished it on Saturday, Sept. 25. At the start, he wasn’t sure he would be able to finish and said few people believed he would.
“It’s a tough race,” he said. “I set my expectation lower and I think that kind of mindset helped me to get through that kind of tough situation.”
Wang hasn’t always been a runner. As a freshman student from China living with a host family, he was introduced to endurance running by his coach, Tyler Waterhouse.
Although Wang runs cross country, his teammates don’t have the same mindset as he does as they concentrate on a three-mile race.
“I approach things differently. Sometimes we’re not even thinking the same way. It’s hard for them to conceptualize doing something like a 100,” he said, adding that even his parents in China also aren’t sure what to think of his new sport. “They think I’m crazy; they don’t do sports at all. To be honest, I’m not a good runner. I have flat feet and sometimes, I just feel like I can’t keep up the pace (during high school cross country races). But I can go longer so I still like to push myself.”
Wang set a goal to run the Bear 100 with Waterhouse, who finished 13th and finished in 22 hours 48 minutes.
“I did this because my running coach was doing it and it was going to be his last 100 (race). He kind of inspired me to run so I was like, ‘Oh, I have to do this because he’s doing it.’ You know, this is my last chance ever,” Wang said.
He also was inspired to run a 100-mile after his first cross country meet freshman year, where he saw the finish line of the Wasatch 100.
“I saw a guy tripping though the finish line and I thought, that’s something I’m going to do. Running 100 has been my goal since then,” he said.
With all the miles he puts in, people believe he must love running, but Wang doesn’t go there.
“It depends what I’m doing that 20 miles—and like at mile 18 or 19, I’d say I don’t (like running), but the accomplishment or the feelings after a run is the good stuff. I like that,” he said.
To prepare for the Bear 100, Wang ran two 50-milers. His first was Antelope Island as a virtual race in March 2020, which he ran with his coach.
“It was really hard because I paced it wrong. I went out too hard for the first 30 miles and the last 20 was horrifying,” he said, saying that his coach “didn’t say anything. He just helped me through it.”
Although the Antelope Island race, which he ran in 10 hours 44 minutes, well under 16-hour mark qualifying him for the Bear 100, Wang still chose to race Squaw Peak in June.
“Mostly it was just for fun and for the experience. I like the pain at mile 40. It’s so painful, but I like the feeling. I like to cry, I like to yell and just keep going and crying and ‘oh no, I have to do this.’ The key is not to stop,” he said.
But Squaw Peak was a different experience.
“That one was surprisingly easy, even though it’s like 13,000 feet of elevation gain. I felt great the whole day,” Wang said about the race he finished in 12 hours 11 minutes. “I trained more and have more experience with the pace. It was a natural race. We had eight (aid) stations and people cheering for us and that’s the major difference.”
Both races helped to prepare Wang for the Bear 100.
“Training is definitely the key and the only approach is just to run more. (On school days,) I like to run four to six miles and I run 20 miles-ish on Saturday and a half-marathon on Sunday,” he said, adding that most of the runs are trail runs. “I just practice, power hiking, and getting used to the elevation gain. Power hiking is really the key. It’s really fun.”
Wang also cross-trains, sometimes riding a 100 or 200 miles on his bike in one day.
Fast forward to Bear 100 race day—and he did notice the beautiful trees described in the run for “the first 40. After that, it gets dark and the next morning, it’s nothing about the trees.”
After starting the race, Wang told himself mentally that he could make it by saying to himself to just make it to the next aid station, where he could get supplies he left or help if he needed it. But the hardest part of the Bear 100, he said, wasn’t at mile 40.
“The low part was like mile 72. It was dark at 2 a.m. It was cold. It was windy,” Wang said. “There was a really big hill and my headlamp ran out of battery and I didn’t have extra batteries on me. I ran into a guy and he gave me a new headlamp. He encouraged me to keep going. At the aid station, I sat there for 15 minutes and just told myself, ‘I have to finish this. I signed up and I’m ready for it.’”
At mile 76, he admitted to himself he was tired and needing sleep, so at the aid station, he set a timer to rest.
“At mile 76, it’s been a day and it was just a lot of pain and it’s kind of close to the end, but not exactly the end. I felt like if I kept going, maybe I would die—I don’t know. So, I took a 15-minute nap,” he said. “The moment I started to sleep, the timer went off. I woke up and was gone. I told myself that if I didn’t finish, it would last forever. I told myself, ‘For the next eight hours, I’m going to finish and have this to remember my whole life.’”
At an earlier aid station, he had left extra layers of clothing to help him get through the cool night air as well as the headlamp and poles. He ran with a hydration pack.
“I knew I’d stop running because it was dark so I just power hiked through the night,” he said. “I think the last 20 miles, I was walking. My hip hurt really bad after I kicked a big rock by accident.”
He knew he wouldn’t drop out at that point.
“The only way you can fix (the pain) is to drop out and that’s not a way to go. That’s not an option,” he said. “In the moment, it’s like ‘Why? What the h—?’ but after you finish your race, you’ll go out and sign up for another race.”
When he finished 35 hours and 13 minutes after the race began, his first thoughts were: “Thank God, this is over.” Then, he asked himself, ‘Yes, this was the time I wanted, or I never am going to do this again?’”
After receiving a black bear belt buckle for finishing under 36 hours, Wang began to wonder “what I’m going to do next. I like to set goals, keep setting goals and just keep going, never stop.”
While he took one month to set his next goals, and continued to run, he picked up a paintbrush —another activity he never did in China—to paint landscapes, including nearby mountain peaks. It earned him $3,000 for second place in an art competition.
“I just observe it in my head, and just paint it out. Last year, I don’t remember what mountain it was in Utah, but I painted it and won a scholarship for painting. It’s kind of relaxing change from running so much,” Wang said.
The breather was short-lived as he now has his eyes set to race a Grand Slam, which in endurance terms is to run four 100-mile races, this summer before he graduates high school.
Then, before he graduates college, he wants to study engineering in the United States, he has a goal to complete a triple crown—three 200-hour races in one summer.
“It’s mostly mental. It’s not really about just running that distance, but also conceptualizing that distance and paying attention to the whole process,” Wang said. “I know I can do 100, so now I want to know what can I do? It’s accomplishing things that are harder is inspiring to myself.”