When I arrived at 7:30am (30 minutes to go time), the start area was packed with eager runners. The pervasive family atmosphere warmed up the 38-degree morning in a blanket of hugs and hellos, as many of the “Western States” clan caught up with each other. For many trail runners, the WTC marks the beginning of the 2006 trail running season and a chance to see how your winter training is going. It’s also a chance to challenge the elements – as Race Director Greg Soderlund’s e-mail warned “come prepared for anything…you’re likely in for a true adventure”.
Greg was right. One quick glance at the trail conditions confirmed ankle deep mud every couple hundred of feet, plenty of water run-off weaving through the rocky single track areas, and streams too large to jump. Throw in the potential for snow, and it was clear that staying warm was going to be crucial to having a good race. I opted for a rain jacket, gloves, a hat, my wool Injinji tsoks, Inov-8 Flyroc 310’s (since they drain the best), and, remembering my race at last year’s Rucky Chucky, gaiters. I also brought two water bottles (one with water, one with water and Hammer Gel, both with pockets full of hourly servings of E-Caps and Endurolytes). At 8am, I lined up at the start and wished everyone well.
The WTC course is well-designed for a large group of trail runners. The first two miles are on a wide paved road going right by the parked cars, allowing the fast runners to get by and the ability to strip off a layer of clothing and toss it to you vehicle. As I tossed some extra clothes to my car, I almost hit a guy running to the start – it was Chikara Omine, running a few minutes late. No worries, he made it to the start, turned around, and passed nearly all of us before we hit the muddy fire roads around mile 2.5.
As the runners spread out, we each had more room to try out our respective strategies for attacking the mud. Some went straight through the puddles, while others danced around the edges. I tried to stay dry, but as the puddles became trenches, it was clear that everyone was going to be soaked by mile 5. One guy went down on his hands and knees, filling his water bottle with mud. Then I heard a loud ‘SHLOP!’ as the mud sucked a runner up to his calf right in front of me. As he laughed it off, I recognized it was Aaron Summerhays, whom I had met at the Tahoe Rim 50k. He was looking pretty good and took off ahead of me – I guess his “three kids under three” training plan was keeping him light on his toes.
We crossed Hwy 49, and weaved down single track on our way down to the Quarry Road trail along the American River. Everyone turned on their afterburners, kicking up mud from their treads like monster trucks. It felt good to warm up the muscles a bit more. Many of the runners I thought were “just in front of me” were already long gone, including Meghan Arbogast (Corvallis, OR) and Jamie Donaldson (Littleton, CO) who both looked to be having a great race.
Brown’s Bar was the first steep hill of the race at mile 9, taking us atop the canyon hills. My watch read 34 degrees – about five degrees colder than the start of the race – but I was still feeling warm. The stream crossings were cold enough to numb my toes, but they would warm up within 4-5 minutes of running. I hit the top of the hike and headed along the Western States trail, occasionally getting peeks of the clouds hanging onto the steep mountain canyon. A small snow flurry welcomed me on the exposed section of the trail, but it wasn’t enough to accumulate on the ground. Good thing – a snow storm half the size of what I drove through to get here would change this race into a survival game in minutes. I was thankful that Mother Nature was pausing on her snowstorm to let us enjoy our run.
Distracted by the beautiful countryside, I was surprised to come upon the Auburn Trails/Dead Truck aid station at mile 14. Cold-but-happy volunteers poured soup and refilled my water bottles with NASCAR efficiency, and they let me know they would be seeing me again once I finished the 6.4 mile loop in front of me. They cheered me off, and I charged up the hill.
The volunteers at WTC are AMAZING, and there is clearly a small army of them. I recognized many of the faces as racers from other ultras, Cool and Auburn locals, and family members of people out on the trail. Hundreds of hours had been poured into cutting back overgrowth, setting up large aid stations with hot goodies, and flawlessly marking the trail. It takes a village to put on a race like WTC, and I can’t thank them enough when their smiles boost my stride with every aid station.
The course weaved down to the Dead Truck trail (I didn’t see the Dead Truck, but had forgotten to look), and I put on some tunes to accompany the descent (Raconteurs, The Tramps, Crystal Method, and DJ Chicken George). Before I knew it, we were heading back up again, this time up the fiendishly steep Ball Bearing. I caught up to Aaron Summerhays, who was still smiling and having a great time. Despite 400 runners, he had been the first face I had seen in over an hour. We hit the Dead Truck aid station (mile 20.8) within minutes of each other, along with two others who made a fast pace up Ball Bearing. We talked briefly, agreeing that although Ball Bearing was supposedly the hardest climb, the upcoming Goat Hill was also tough due to its steepness and placement at the marathon mark. A few runners were still coming along the Western States trail as we headed out, and were all very nice about stepping aside. Most of them walked in packs of 3-4, laughing and smiling along the way. They were thrilled to hear that soup was close by. ;-)
Goat Hill kills me every time, and this time was no different. It just…keeps….going….up!!! By the time I hit the top, I was dizzy. I saw a sign that said “meet God at the Goat Hill aid station” and thought I was hallucinating. I arrived at the aid stations and said, “which one of you is God?”. They all pointed to ultrarunning legend Norm Klein, who came out and gave me a blessing. I enjoyed another cup of soup as we laughed, and welcomed Ron Gutierrez (San Francisco, CA) into the aid station. I had met Ron at a few short-course races in the Bay Area, and he looked to be having a great ultra.
The last few miles went by easily as we weaved our way back up to Cool, CA, along the Western States trail. David Leipsic (San Rafael, CA) had a great pace going the last few miles and paced me up the final hill. I put in a final kick to try and catch the legendary Scott McCoubrey (Seattle, WA), but he had enough juice left to beat me by a minute. I finished in 4:36 for 39th place, still smiling but eager to find a heater for my frozen toes.
In the tent, I huddled around the space heater with AJ (who had run WTC faster than his Boston Marathon time), Jean Pommier (a 2:37 marathoner and Boston masters top 10 finisher; this was his first trail ultra, and he clocked 4:30), and Andy Jones-Wilkins (recent 100-mile US Champion, finishing WTC in 4:12). I had learned that 27-year-old Phil Kochik (Seattle, WA) had won in an insanely fast 3:37, with Bryan Dayton (Boulder, CO), Paul DeWitt (Monument, CO), 48-year-old Roy Rivers (Mill Valley, CA), Scott Jaime (Highland Ranch, CO), Erik Skaden (Folsom, CA), Chikara Omine (SF, CA), and 50-year-old Mark Richtman (Novato, CA) all finishing under 4 hours, with John Ticer not too far off that pace. Joelle Vaught (Boise, ID) took nearly a half an hour off her 2005 time to win the women’s division in 4:17, just ahead of Craig Thornley.
I dug into my goody bag for dry clothes (shirt, sweatshirt, AND gloves – yes!), hit the hose to wipe off the poison oak, and cranked my heated seats up to 11 for the drive back to Tahoe. The WTC had definitely been an adventure as promised, and I had a great time. Future racers note that I used all the gear I brought, so be sure to pack for anything Mother Nature can dish out.
My thanks to Greg Soderlund and the volunteers of WTC for putting on a spectacular race! I will add pics once a bunch are posted.