On July 20, three experienced ultra-marathoners embarked on an epic adventure taking them 300 miles through the Bear River and Wasatch Mountain ranges. The route they created linked two iconic Utah ultra-marathons, the Bear 100 and the Wasatch Front 100. They named the route “The Utah BRAWL 300,” the acronym standing for: Bear River And Wasatch Linkup.
The men who took on this ambitious endeavor are Ben Light of Heber City, Utah, Michael McKnight of Logan, Utah and Dax Hock of Boise, Idaho. And while the epic adventure is one the trio will no doubt be talking about for years to come, the run became less about them, and more about helping a friend who is no longer able to experience what it’s like to run or even walk.
Austin Patten has been an athlete his entire life, having competed in various sports since he was a child, and then picking up the sport of running when he was in college. With that built in drive to push his limits, he soon set his sights on becoming a triathlete, with the goal of completing the full Ironman distance.
On August 17, 2019, a very short two months after just getting married, Austin was out on his bike for a training ride when the unthinkable happened: he was struck by a car severing his spinal cord and causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down.
“There are a lot of good and bad things that have happened since the accident,” Paten said. “Getting used to a new way of life sucks. Relearning how to sit up, roll over, get dressed, go to the bathroom, do chores, and get in a car and drive are all very difficult, exhausting, and frustrating. When you live your whole life one way and then overnight you are physically unable to do anything, it causes depression.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
I still cry when I am on my handcycle and I pass a normal cyclist. I want to bike so badly.” Focusing on what he can do is what keeps Patten moving forward. “I try to remember a quote by John Wooden who said: ‘Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.’ This helps me because while I can’t bike, I can handcycle. So that is what I do.”
“I’m still doing it but need a lot of help.”
According to Patten, the aftermath of the accident has been hard, but his desire to complete his goals has remained strong. “The second thing I said after I woke up from being intubated for four days was, ‘I’m going to do an Ironman,’” he recalled. “I’m still doing it but need a lot of help.” While nearly every aspect of Austin's life has changed, his grit, his detemination and his goals have only gotten stronger.
Accomplished ultra runners, Light and McKnight had wanted to create a course that would link up the Bear 100 and Wasatch Mountain courses via the Great Western Trail for a while. When their race plans for the year were foiled due to all the 2020 race cancellations, they decided to put their adventure plans into motion. It was then when Light had the idea to turn the run into a fundraiser. He wanted to help Patten purchase a racing wheelchair and the proper coaching in his quest toward completing a full Ironman triathlon, but now as a para-athlete.
Light, McKnight and Hock ran the BRAWL in an effort to raise funds to purchase a racing wheelchair and specialized coaching for Austin Patten who has goals of completing an Ironman triathlon as a paraplegic athlete.
“I've always wanted to link up the Bear 100 and Wasatch 100,” McKnight said. “Earlier this year I created a quick route so I could have an idea on what the mileage would be like between the Bear and Wasatch. Ben approached me at the start of June, expressing that he wanted to do a cool project before the Tahoe 200 this year. I jokingly brought up the concept of connecting the two race courses, forgetting who I was talking to. By that night, he texted me and asked if I wanted to do it with him at the end of June.”
At the time Light approached McKnight about linking the Bear and Wasatch courses, McKnight was deep in his training for Badwater, which is a 135-mile race through California’s Death Valley. The race was set to take place on July 6, and McKnight knew that if he threw a 300-mile adventure in there, it would likely hinder his training for Badwater.
“After Badwater announced the cancellation of the race, I was 100% in.”
“When Ben approached me, I told him it would probably mess up my Badwater training, so I'd have to pass,” McKnight said. Ben then suggested doing it at the end of July, and I said I'd do it with him, although I knew that the chances of me not doing the whole thing with him were high due to recovering from Badwater. After Badwater announced the cancellation of the race, I was 100% in.”
With both Light and McKnight committed to the 300-mile journey, they finalized the route which is in three parts:
“We ran the Bear 100 course in reverse,” Light said. “We started at Bear Lake and ran west through the Bear River Range, finishing the first segment in Logan, Utah. From Logan, we made our way south to Hyrum where we joined with the Great Western Trail. The GWT took us through Avon pass and up the east side of the Wasatch Range in the Cache National Forest. We then headed south crossing the North Ogden Divide in Ogden Canyon, then up over Snowbasin and down to South Ogden crossing the Weber River. From there we headed south on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to finish the second segment and link up with the Wasatch 100 start. We then ran the current Wasatch 100 course from Kaysville to Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.”
To be able to take on such an ambitious and challenging feat, it takes an experienced group of outdoorsmen with the mental and physical endurance to complete it. This is exactly what type of men Light, McKnight and Hock are.
In fact all three men have not only completed, but podiumed at the prestigious Triple Crown of 200’s endurance challenge. This is a grand slam race that takes in three 200-mile races over a three month period of time: the Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200, and the Moab 240. Light took third place in the 2018 event with a total time of 225 hours, 53 minutes, and 58 seconds.
In 2019, Hock and McKnight conquered the beast with Hock coming in second place with an overall time of 206 hours, 42 minutes and 21 seconds, and McKnight winning the event with a time of 162 hours and 51 minutes, setting course records in each of the three races.
“It was the middle of an insane lightning storm...”
While the three are fierce competitors, they are big supporters of each other. In fact, Light has been a support crew and pacer for McKnight, and it was during a stormy night at the Bigfoot 200, when the three of them helped each other endure something very frightening. According to Hock, meeting Light and McKnight that night not only helped him survive a potentially very dangerous situation, but it helped him learn to find joy in the suffering.
“I met Mike during my first 200,” Hock said.” It was the middle of an insane lightning storm where we both legitimately feared for our lives. We agreed to run together for safety, which is a smart choice that began a great friendship. When we got into the Aid Station I got to meet Ben, who was pacing Mike. Without hesitation, the two of them agreed to my request to continue to tag along through the night. They could see I was inexperienced and scared to run alone in those conditions.
That night turned out to be some of the most fun I had during Bigfoot. When the race was over, I learned more about ‘who’ Mike and Ben were: Big time ultra running athletes! I couldn't believe that they put racing aside to help me. It was clear they were super high-quality people. When the idea of the BRAWL came my way, my heart raced with excitement. While running 300 miles seems ludicrous, an adventure with two incredible humans was the opportunity of a lifetime. The FOMO completely overrode the fear of failure!”
This year, all three of them have felt the disappointment of races cancelled and goals put on the back burner due to the pandemic. However, they found the satisfaction they attained by creating and completing this project and at the same time, helping someone in need, is beyond compare to anything they had previously planned.
The experience as both endurance athletes and outdoorsmen would prove vital as the three set out on their 300-mile journey that would also include a seemingly insurmountable amount of vertical gain, technical terrain, and exposure to elements.
Over the course that took 4 1/2 days, each one of them encountered physical and mental challenges of their own.
At around the 94 mile mark after the long climb near Logan Peak, Dax started having some severe knee pain on the descent which significantly slowed the team. He had to tap out early. “When I had to drop I was emotionally wrecked,” he said. “I knew I had to drop because I was thinking about the project and not myself.”
“Don’t let fear stop you from trying something hard...”
Hock found it difficult going from team member to crew member. He continued: “It was much more difficult to deal with the emotional pain than the physical pain, but I’m glad I at least tried.
Going into this, I dealt with so many doubts that I was even good enough to join these guys, but I didn’t let fear stop me. If I contributed to this, I think that’s my contribution. Don’t let fear stop you from trying something hard, and don’t let negative thoughts make you feel less-than.”
Mcknight said that he learned patience. “I’m a pretty… like, anxious and like to stick to a plan,” he said. “The first night things were going slower than I wanted them to be. It took a couple days, but I learned to work on not worrying so much about planning, and not letting my own self-doubt getting in the way of me learning and having fun. I got into this for the fun of it, and I need to revisit that.”
“I kept thinking about Austin and how he didn’t even have the use of his legs.”
With about 25 miles to go, Light experienced some pain in his quad that made it so he couldn’t run. He said that quitting wasn’t an option because with each painful step, his thoughts turned toward Patten.
“When my quad started to act up, I could not run,” Light said. “I kept thinking about Austin and how he didn’t even have the use of his legs. I knew that no matter what it took, I was going to finish. What was also touching was that in my time of need, Mike didn’t leave me. Even though Mike could have run the whole rest of the way, and finished several hours earlier, he walked the rest of the way with me, and we finished the journey together. When we finished, Dax was there with his family supporting us. We all finished this together.”
According to McKnight, the idea to turn the run into a benefit was something brought up by Light. He said he’s glad that their efforts have been able to benefit another, and has made it that much more rewarding. The fact that Ben was able to turn this into something to benefit someone else, is even better,” McKnight said. “Ben is good at doing that. Now instead of a fun project, it's something that was focused on helping someone else.”
Hock said that being able to run to benefit an athlete who is still moving forward despite life’s extreme challenges, represents something he is very passionate about. “Austin's story transformed a crazy idea into a very meaningful project,” Hock said. “His story represents an idea I am so passionate about, which is that life isn't defined by what happens to you, but how you react to it.”
“Austin and his wife Jill are examples of grit and determination.”
Light, who was the brainchild behind organizing the run and cause, said that Austin and his wife Jill are examples to him of grit and determination. “Motivation and Inspiration are mental driving forces that help endurance athletes to push their bodies past their perceived limits,” Light said. “We are all inspired and motivated by Austin’s example of grit and determination as he works towards completing his goal and achieving his dream despite his physical disability.”
For more on Austin Patten’s story, and how to be a part of his journey to Ironman, CLICK HERE.