Ups and downs are not confined to course topography during ultramarathons.
Aspen native Zeke Tiernan knows those trying moments well. Moments where personal endurance and resolve are tested and when bowing out is far easier than taking one more step forward.
The Aspen Country Day School history teacher encountered that moment just 25 miles into Saturday's famed Western States 100 in California. In his frantic attempt to keep pace with the lead pack, Tiernan admittedly neglected to hydrate or eat properly.
He paid dearly.
"All of a sudden, it was like someone turned a switch. It was a really rough patch," Tiernan said Tuesday. "I got blurry vision. I was stumbling and had to walk. It was starting to get really cold. In my head I was thinking, 'God, am I having a serious medical problem? What's going on?' All those types of things happen, but with 75 miles to go I was thinking maybe I should drop."
Instead, he kept plodding. Propelled by words of encouragement from fellow competitors and by the dozens of friends and family waiting for him at nearly every aid station, Tiernan caught his second wind. It carried him all the way to the finish - and into the top 10.
Tiernan reached Auburn, Calif., on Saturday night, triumphantly crossing the finish line in 15 hours, 57 minutes, 59 seconds. The effort was good for a sixth-place result - one spot and about six minutes ahead of Aspen's Dylan Bowman - during a year marked by record times and record low temperatures.
Ashland, Ore.'s Timothy Olsen overwhelmed the field en route to a winning time of 14:46:44, shattering the previous course record by more than 20 minutes. On the women's side, Canadian Ellie Greenwood defended her 2011 title with a time of 16:47:19, which topped the 18-year-old course record by 50 minutes.
"Finishing is such a great accomplishment, no matter what," Tiernan said. "This is thought of as an individual sport, and a lot of it is being out there all alone, but my baby was at the aid station with my wife and my mom and dad. My brother was pacing me, and my sister-in-law was up from L.A. I didn't want to let the people who came out to support me down. I decided I was part of a team and if they did all this for me, I was going to deliver."
Things took a turn for the better for Tiernan at around mile 30. Refreshed and rehydrated after a quick aid-station stop, he began running with Neal Gorman, last year's third-place finisher at the Leadville Trail 100.
Tiernan settled into a comfortable pace, "got my legs and body back together" and was able to push hard during an uphill section leading to an aid station at around mile 55.
"I felt like an Indy car driver - my crew got me in and out of that aid station so fast," Tiernan joked. "This race was really efficient. There was no time wasted standing around, which has been a weakness of mine."
From there, Tiernan gained some separation from Gorman and another competitor, then picked up two pacers at miles 60 and 62.
"I immediately felt better and had such a huge pick-me-up seeing really good friends," Tiernan said. "It's nice having a pacer because you really don't have to think as much. You concentrate on running, and they say, 'OK, it's time to eat. Take a gel.' Or, 'Now it's time to take a salt pill.' Or, 'You're slowing down a little - pick up the pace here.'
"Jeremy and I were moving pretty good. And I was running scared, worrying those guys behind would come back at any minute."
They didn't, and Tiernan moved from ninth to eighth at around mile 80, when brother Alex took over pacing for the home stretch.
Not long after, he settled into seventh.
"I came into the Highway 49 Aid Station, and my crew was there. As soon as we came out of the woods, they went berserk," Tiernan said. "I was excited, pumped and kept moving really hard.
"At some point, my brother said there were two guys ahead of me that we could catch. We didn't know who they were."
With just a few miles remaining, Tiernan hit his stride. He powered up a steep hill, turned a corner and spotted a familiar silhouette.
Soon after, he passed a visibly fatigued Bowman.
"At that point, I had the idea in my head that I could break 16 hours," Tiernan said. "When I saw Dylan, I was thinking to myself that it's great to pass as many people as I can, but he was the last person I wanted to pass. I was hoping he was in third and I would make a charge and wind up fifth or sixth."
Tiernan made that happen, sprinting as fast as he could once he hit the track in Auburn and surging to the finish.
Bowman, meanwhile, faded down the stretch. The 26-year-old's concerns that his pre-race training did not include enough long-distance runs had come to fruition.
"After 10 or 12 hours of running, my legs were pretty much toast," Bowman admitted. "I was running really hard up until that point and felt pretty good, but I had a major meltdown in the last 20 miles and in particular the last 10. ... I don't know, I was three to five minutes back (of Olsen) at mile 80, so that sort of tells you how slow the last 20 miles were.
"When you go in thinking about this race for that long and have things unravel, it's discouraging, but I'm happy I gutted it out through those terrible last few hours. I'm grateful for the experience, and I'm going to be stronger for it."
Tiernan feels the same way. After a family vacation this week, he said he'll set his sights on August's Leadville Trail 100. Bowman will serve as one of Tiernan's pacers.
"I think I'm going to have lots of support from the valley coming over the hill to be there," Tiernan said. "It's going to be really neat, really special."