Western States Endurance Run: ‘I know it’s going to hurt’
Neatly typed on the training guide for the Western States Endurance Run are the words: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If that’s true, then Lorraine Sorensen Lavelle must have amnesia.
After 11 100-mile races, Lavelle should know that running nearly four consecutive marathons is excruciating. But she keeps forgetting.
Already, she has forgotten the minor annoyances that come with dragging her body such a distance. She doesn’t make mention of the blisters on her blisters, which can make her shoes feel three sizes too small. Nor does she more than dimly recall the uncomfortable feeling of running in soggy socks after wading through 6 inches of snow or crossing a swollen river.
Even the memories Lavelle has of her past runs – like nearly falling asleep on her feet after 20 hours of running or having her stomach wretch at the sight of her food – don’t seem so bad in hindsight.
"There are several times during the 100 miles that I have said I’m never going to do it again," Lavelle concedes.
But she always finishes. And she always finds herself coming back for more, doomed to repeat her past.
Lavelle’s case isn’t an isolated one. At 5 a.m. on Saturday, she’ll join 450 runners for the start of the 32nd annual Western States 100-mile endurance run. These lucky runners (more than 1,000 apply for spots) will test the limits of their bodies and minds as they try to follow a backcountry trail from the Squaw Valley USA ski resort to the town of Auburn within the race’s 30-hour time limit.
"There are ravines in the middle. It’s steep and treacherous. It’s not for the faint of heart," said Trevor Strudley of Aptos, who will join Lavelle and two other Santa Cruz County runners — Terri Schneider and Peter Fish, also of Aptos — in their masochistic pursuit Saturday.
None of the four are new to this. Lavelle’s experience far outweighs the others’, but Schneider will be starting her fifth 100-miler, while Strudley and Fish will both be lined up for their second.
Their pursuit raises one big question.
"People ask, ‘Why do you do this?’" says Schneider, who has completed two of her three attempts to run the Western States 100. "It’s a reasonable question. But if you’ve done it, the real question is: ‘How could I not?’"
‘A freaky place’
"One-hundred-mile races are the toughest I’ve ever done. That’s saying a lot," says Terri Schneider.
The chair she’s sitting in at Lulu Carpenter’s café can barely contain the petite brunette, who is noticeably toned even under her rain gear. Energy surrounds her. She seems like a storm cloud ready to send out a bolt of lightning at any moment.
Schneider, 44, has spent a lifetime harnessing that energy. She ran her first marathon at 17. Soon afterward she became a professional triathlete, competing in 14 Ironmans, including eight championships in Hawaii. Of late, she’s become a goddess of adventure racing and now trains athletes for a living. Through it all, Schneider has become a master at selective memory.
"My friends laugh at me because I forget how hard things are," she says. "That’s the blessing of an endurance athlete. You forget the pain easily.
"But, I remember last year’s (Western States 100) race," she adds. "It was painful, big time."
Schneider had run the Western States twice before. The first time, in 1998, she had to swallow her pride after pulling a quadriceps muscle and walk the final 40 miles to the finish. Hoping to redeem herself, she ran it again in ‘99. That time her stomach revolted, forcing her to pull out of the race after she "bonked."
So when Schneider’s name was picked out of the lottery last year, she signed up right away. Bad luck struck again, though, as she suffered a back injury early in the training. Using exercises like pool running, cycling and weight training, plus just six weeks of trail running, she made the start. After physically and mentally exhausting herself, she came out the other end in less than 24 hours, winning a coveted Western States 100 silver belt buckle.
A better finish, but not a better race. So, Schneider is back to go through hell again.
"Athletes are so hard on ourselves. We tend to go to this place where we go to the dark abyss of self hatred," she said, noting that she’s been trying to infuse the power of positive reinforcement in her training. "If you don’t know how to manage that, it’s a pretty freaky place.
"That’s why I do this. It’s the challenge of keeping from going there."
Opening the door
Trevor Strudley could still feel the medal on his chest three days later as he headed home from the New York City Marathon in November of 1994. He was so smug he couldn’t help but brag a little to the woman seated next to him on his flight back to Britain, his home at the time.
"So you ran the marathon?" she asked. The gray was beginning to show in her hair and wrinkles had gathered around the edges of her eyes and lips.
"Yep," Strudley beamed.
"Oh," the woman said, casually flipping the page of her magazine. "I do double marathons."
Her response not only knocked Strudley’s ego down a few sizes, it introduced him to the idea that there’s something beyond a marathon. That’s when his memory started to go.
If she could do it, he could too, he reasoned. First it was 50ks (32 miles), then 50 milers. He ran his first 100 miler in Kansas last year. Now, he’s going to attempt the Western States, one of the toughest of the 34 North American hundreds.
"Each time you open the door, you find there’s another one behind it," the businessman from Wales, now the vice president of marketing for a cell-phone company, said of how he came to run 100-mile races.
The door to the Western States opened a crack a year ago when he witnessed its carnage first-hand as a pacer. At the 62-mile mark, when the sun sets and the brain begins to leak logic, runners are allowed to pick up a companion runner to keep them safe, motivated and headed toward the finish line. Strudley, 42, paced Santa Cruz’s Carol Cuminale. She will return the favor sometime early Sunday morning.
Amazingly, what Strudley saw didn’t dissuade him from entering the race. At one point, they came across a runner who had stepped off the trail path and straight into the bows of a large bush. Exhausted, the runner couldn’t even manage the strength to pull himself out. Later, they passed a woman who had become so dysfunctional that she didn’t know which way was forward.
The aid stations, places for respite, weren’t always much better.
"Some of these places looked like M.A.S.H. units," Strudley said. "Bodies are laid out and there’s blood everywhere."
Strudley wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s excited about seeing it all again, much less experiencing it himself.
"Excited is not the word," he said. "I’m looking forward to it, but part of it is I know it’s going to hurt."
To try to minimize the pain, Strudley set his goal at survival. If he makes it across the finish line within the 30-hour time limit, he’ll have made his goal. He’ll have survived 100 miles of hell. It will be something he’ll never forget.
"It’s something no one can take away from you," Strudley said. "You don’t wear it on your sleeve; you wear it in your heart."
No one needs to tell Peter Fish how tough the Western States 100 is. No need to mention how many things can go wrong, or to bring up the fact that, on average, only 50-60 percent of the entrants finish. Fish knows all this. Two years ago, he became another of the race’s casualties.
Fish became fixated on running the Western States after spending several boyhood summers at a cabin near Auburn. He promised himself he would have it completed by age 40. So when he turned 37 in 2001 and hadn’t run a race, much less the Western States, in 16 years, he decided he’d better get busy.
Good thing he planned ahead.
Injuries cropped up right away as his body, used to cycling, tried to adjust to the impact of running. The biggest problem was an Achilles heel that never seemed to heal.
But none of that caused Fish to wave the white flag after running nearly half the race. As he was coming out of one of the toughest climbs, his stomach turned on him. It wouldn’t let food or water in, and it pushed everything he’d gotten in back out. Without sustenance, he had no chance.
"Things were good, I felt good," Fish said of the early going. Then, "There is this place called ‘The Canyons’ where it drops a couple thousand feet. Climbing out, I got intestinal problems."
Already behind schedule, and worried that his crew – consisting of his wife Jennifer and his sons Aaron, now 11, and Ryan, now 8 – would be fretting over his whereabouts, he simply pulled out of the race.
At the time, he said, the decision was easy. After watching some of his fellow runners cross the finish line, he became a little less sure of his choice.
"I needed to quit and I quit," he said. "At the end, though, I saw people running in and I said to myself, ‘Dang, why didn’t I finish?’"
This time he’s determined, no matter how long it takes. He’s convinced this is something his body and mind can get through.
"I think they’re going to have to drag me off this time," said Fish, now 40, who will be running injured after hurting his right hip and hamstring while training. "Even if they cut my band and kick me out of the aid stations, if I feel good, I’m going to keep going. They can’t kick me off the trail."
Fish said the gold belt buckle he’ll get for finishing may be his first and last. His commitment to his kids, his wife and his work make the long training hours – he’s usually up at 5 a.m. to run before waking the boys for school – tough to manage.
"This is probably my last attempt, so I would like to finish," he said. "There’s just too much pressure with a family."
Lorraine Sorensen Lavelle laughs at this. Famous last words.
"They really are addictive," she says.
Lavelle is talking about her lowest moment, and she’s smiling.
It came in 2001 while she was running Utah’s Wasatch Front 100. That was the year she’d given up sports drinks and gotten hyponatremia – dehydration’s evil twin – because her body didn’t have enough salt and electrolytes to process the water she’d been pouring into it. Instead of losing weight, she gained 17 pounds. Her body began to swell to accommodate the extra water, making her hands so plump she couldn’t close them. Even worse, Lavelle’s brain began to engorge and push against her skull, causing loss of balance and logic.
She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t even know she was in a race.
"I thought we were running around in circles," Lavelle says, laughing. "A woman passed us up and my husband (Mike, who was pacing her) said, ‘You just let her pass you!’ And I said, ‘Good, maybe she can find the trail because I think we’re lost.’"
Lavelle seems to revel in that tale and the others that stem from her many close calls on the trail. She didn’t have stories like these 18 years ago, when she was a "partier," before some friends from the gym talked her into running, albeit in her aerobics shoes. She didn’t have them 10 years ago, before a friend convinced her to train for the Wasatch 100 after the summer trip to Europe she had planned fell through.
Back then, Lavelle felt like she’d been running in circles.
Like she was lost. Then she found a constant: the pain of endurance running. That led to another constant: the support of her husband. She met Mike on the course of one 100 miler and they were engaged after another.
Now, Lavelle feels there’s nothing she can’t do. After all, she has gone toe to toe with a race that challenges runners beyond comprehension both physically and mentally. And she hasn’t just come out alive, she’s finished within the course’s cutoff time, every time.
"It puts things in perspective," she says of racing 100s. "Many things you think area big deal are not such a big deal in life."
The runners say pain is only temporary. It’s the memory of finishing something they didn’t think they could that lasts forever.
Contact Julie Jag at firstname.lastname@example.org
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