It was an awesome day for most of the day. Justine (girlfriend), Dave (crew chief), Terry (pacer), Mark (pacer), and Granger (Terry's friend) did a terrific job crewing and pacing and despite the really LONG day, it was a lot of fun. The course was perfect, there was no snow, and the weather hasn't been that cool in quite a few years on Western States day.
Before I go any further, I should say that I'm healthy and did not have to drop due to injury. If you want the punch line, at the end of this email are the main things that contributed to the drop. But, first a blow by blow of the race from my perspective.
5am – The start is very cool since it is barely daylight and 400 people charge up a ski slope out of Squaw Valley . We climb from 6200 ft to 8700 ft in the first 3.5 miles, which is an "interesting" way to start the day. My fears of getting boxed in were quickly dismissed when about 20 people separated from the large group about 100 yards up the first fire road. By the top of the climb, there were 5 of us who were out front by about 50 yards.
From here, we started a long rocky descent to the first aid station. The eventual winner, Hal, took off, never to be seen again. This guy is tall and has some serious downhill skills. Next were the guy from Korea , a guy from Switzerland , and me. After going through Lyon Ridge at M10.5, I knew we were all running a little fast for that early. Korean Dude took off and Swiss Dude stayed about 100 yards ahead of me.
Swiss Dude and I left the next aid station together and I basically got about 5 yards behind him and enjoyed his pace. We came into Duncan Canyon at M23.8. I got to see Justine and Dave for the first time (and got to change into my cropped shirt to keep cool) and that was a great mental boost since it had been over 3.5 hrs, and we were all wondering/hoping they wouldn't have car trouble.
Once again, Swiss Dude and I left close to each other and I was surprised when we ran up to Korean Dude. The three of us stayed within 25 yards of each other for the next hour to Robinson Flat. This was incredibly fun for me because I very rarely run with other folks on training runs, and since none of knew the other's native language, we didn't have to get out of breath talking about where we were from or how we were doing.
Robinson Flat is the first major at M29.7. Terry, Granger, and Mark were waiting for me at this station, and since Swiss Dude and Korean Dude did not have a crew here, they took a few extra minutes getting aid while I was able to grab fresh bottles and go. I felt really comfortable at the point because I was within 3 minutes of my projected time for this aid station and I had run the next 70 miles in two separate training runs earlier in June. I mean, I was basically in the home stretch at this point!
By the time I reached Justine and Dave a little over an hour later at Dusty Corner's, I was starting to have some cautionary thoughts. My quads were beginning to act up and say "Hold on, are you sure we agreed to do this?" I attributed the bad thoughts to altitude and counted on feeling better once I got down below 5,000 ft. After Dusty Corner's at M38, the course starts into a series of three difficult canyons. I was feeling quite good for the next hour because much of the trail was in the shade and slightly downhill. On the way into the bottom of the first canyon, it's kind of like running down steps with gravel on them…for a little over a mile.
Devil's Thumb is a 25% grade climb for close to 2 miles to get out of the canyon. It is gorgeous, but it is also very hot, and there were at least 10 photographers at various stages of the climb. It's when you're starting to overheat from the climb and trying to stay cool and you start thinking, "Great, I'm SO glad this is all being documented, I look just terrific right now". At the top of the climb, I took a good three minutes trying to cool off, pouring ice water over my head.
photo courtesy of Luis Escobar - be sure to see all of his amazing WS photos here)
I also started drinking Pepsi (the caffeinated drink offered by the aid stations this year). The caffeine gave me a good boost, but it was really early to start using it at only 7hrs 40 minutes into the day. The next 8 miles involve a 5 mile descent as if you're running down an overpass with switchbacks and steep edges, for 5 miles. The 3 mile climb out of El Dorado Canyon is shaded and very difficult, but easier than Devil's Thumb, and thankfully had fewer photographers!
Coming into Michigan Bluff at M55.7 was great. Having been at this aid station 3 different times on race day as a crew member for other runners, I had always wanted to be running into the aid station to meet my crew. And, to be in second at that point in the day was icing on the cake.
(photo courtesy of Tom Riley, from the great photo journey he kept of his brother, Jeff, getting M9 this year)
I felt surprisingly good coming out of the canyon and getting to see everyone after 3 hours of being out of contact with them gave me a sense of "okay, we're moving into the afternoon now, but, we're still feeling good and the worst of the climbs are over".
Between Michigan Bluff and Foresthill, something that has NEVER happened to me during a trail run, let alone a race…I was moving along enjoying some shade and saw a folded $10 bill on the trail. What? I stopped and got it, why not. Not 50 yards later, there was a folded $5 bill. Huh? I got that one, too. We later joked that Hal, the lead runner, had dropped these and was tipping aid station volunteers as he went along.
Foresthill at M62 is by far the biggest aid station because you can easily drive right up to it. Dave and Granger had fresh bottles and socks waiting for me and Justine, Terry, and Mark got to run with me for about a mile going into the aid station. It was so much fun being able to hear about their day so far and getting all these thoughts out of my head that had been piling up. It was like "Oh, I haven't seen you guys for so long, I have so much to tell you". I dunked my head in our water cooler and Justine, Terry, and Mark ran with us for another half mile until Terry and I left the main road.
Terry would pace me down to the River. And, the next 16 miles are essentially the make or break point in the race. They're primarily down hill and if your quads are sore, it hurts. But, if you can hold things together and get to the River crossing without too much damage, then things are looking good.
It was at this point that I started to hear my quads talking even louder. This was not a good sign. There are three aid stations on the descent, and the first one is run by a running club from Davis , CA (where I went to grad school) and there were a couple of familiar triathletes from the Davis Mad Cows Triathlon team working the aid station. It was a great surprise to see people I knew. I dunked my head in their sponge bucket and we headed out.
I felt like I was starting to overheat, so we slowed down quite a bit and at this point, I realized that my strategy of a liquid diet for the entire day was beginning to have, how should I put this, "ramifications". My stomach was slowly shutting down and nothing tasted good. Two runners went by and at the next aid station, we spent a good 5 minutes drinking more Pepsi and cooling off.
There is a steep 2 mile downhill stretch next and it's easier to run it hard than to gingerly step through it to avoid hurting the quads. Terry and I ran down very fast, but by the bottom of it, my quads were at Defcon 1 and I was beginning to question this "fun day" on the trails.
We made it to the river, after being passed by 2 more runners. I was slowly settling into a shuffle at this point and I was really looking forward to the River crossing which is a highlight of the race. The water felt great and I was really dreaming about doing a sprint triathlon right then, instead of going another 22 miles through the remaining canyons. On the climb up to Green Gate, the last bit of life oozed out of my quads. I took in about 24 oz of Mountain Dew on the 25 minute walk up the hill, but by the top, deep down, I knew things were bad.
However, in the spirit of this race, things get bad, and they usually get better, so it's best to ride out the bad patches. Mark took over pacing duties and told some great stories. Despite his best efforts to keep me cool and keep me moving, I was falling more and more behind on my calories and my stomach was almost locked up. I wasn't bloated, just not open for business. It was 5.4 miles to the next station and about midway, I started to feel really light headed.
Again, Mark was great telling me to keep moving and this would pass and we could re-evaluate everything and take some time at ALT. But, with about a mile to go, the last fumes were burned and I was starting to have visions of passing out and Mark having to carry me to ALT and that's just not fun at all.
So, back to my three goals, 1. Stay Healthy, 2. Have Fun, and 3. a top ten finish. With my place goal now out of reach and with the fun factor completely gone, I wasn't messing around with the stay healthy goal. It was a very easy decision to be totally done. The medics checked my blood pressure, pulse, and blood sugar and said basically, "Oh, you're fine, you just need to eat" OH, REALLY?!?
Fortunately, there was a massage therapist here that set up his table and worked on my quads for about 20 minutes while I got my blood sugar up and then we got a ride up to Cool where Justine, Dave, Terry, and Granger were waiting to head back to the finish line.
Overall, I'm not disappointed at all. I knew there was a significant chance this would happen given my very deep and strong effort output at Mi-Wok seven weeks ago. Basically, two major things came into play.
I race only with liquid nutrition whether it's fluid replacement drink, energy gels, or liquid meal replacement. But, in a 100 mile run at the intensity of Saturday's pace, some solid food would have been a good idea. At some point in the day, my system was full of liquid and stopped processing everything as efficiently. I had to slow down my intake, but kept my output at the same level. This put me at even greater risk of running out of gas….more a question of "when" instead of "if".
Training all spring, tapering, and peaking specifically for Mi-Wok (which was only a 62 mile race), and then racing as fast as I did there took a huge toll on my system. It was rather foolish to think I could hold up to that standard of running over 100 miles only 7 weeks later. However, running that fast at Mi-Wok was the only way to get into Western States, so there was not much choice. This put a substantial risk on running out of gas at WS.
So, the good news is that we all had a great time and I have no regrets about the way I raced or dropping at ALT. I learned much more by racing the way I like to than by holding back to the point of being overly conservative and not competitive. And, it only took about 12 hours to start the "…hmm, next year, I think we could do blah blah blah differently". That's a good sign.