My journey to Western States has been a long one. It started four years ago when I applied for a lottery slot, only to miss it twice and become a “two-time loser” entry for 2008. The forest fires cancelled the race in 2008, so 2009 was my first shot to toe the line. It might sound frustrating, but it wasn’t since I was able to better prepare by racing a number of ultramarathons in that time. I had some good miles under my legs, some heat training, and my ecstatic crew, Brian Drue (my bro-in-law) and Dan Wheeler. My “A” goal was to go sub-22 hours, my “B” goal to get a sub-24 hour finish for the coveted silver buckle, my “C” goal to finish by the 30-hour official cutoff. With that, we rolled up to Squaw Valley a few days before June 27th.
The good news was that the week was packed full of events, including a very helpful session by John Medinger on “how to crew for Western States”. We learned all kinds of great tips, particularly as he emphasized “don’t forget to take care of yourself, not just your runner”. The day before the event was a lot of fun too. I really got a good sense of the history and unfathomable volunteer work behind Western States, whether it was Skip Swannick giving us a pep talk 30 years after being the first woman to break 24 hours, Shannon Weil (the first female finisher in 1978) and Karsten Solheim (11 time finisher, starting when he was 60) presenting the Friend of the Trail Award, or the amazing Mark Falcone who detailed the thousands of hours of volunteer work and cooperation with the Forest Service to get the trail in pristine shape. With so much passion behind this race, it’s no wonder it’s such an extraordinary event.
Talk amongst the runners was mostly about the weather report, predicted to climb into the 100’s. Many were making their projections about the elite runners too. On the men’s side the talk was about defending champion Hal Koerner, 7-time winner Scott Jurek who had returned after a four year hiatus, the unstoppable Dave Mackey, east coaster Leigh Shmidtt, local stars Eric Skaden and Mark Lantz, heat-loving Andy Jones-Wilkins, faster-than-ever Jasper Halekas, Montrail Ultracup leader Eric Grossman, fast and furious closer Victor Ballesteros, and two foreign runners, Tsuyoshi Kaburagi from Japan and Jez Bragg from the UK. For the women, many were wondering if the course experience of Nikki Kimball and Beverly Anderson-Abbs could fend off the challenges from Hardrock-record holder Krissy Moehl, Colorado speed demon Anita Ortiz, Oregon’s Jenn Shelton, and local stars Jenny Capel (current front-runner in the Montrail Ultracup Series), Jamie Frink, and Caren Spore. Whomever was to make the top 10 was going to have to earn it for sure.
At 5am, we counted off the last few seconds and charged up the hill. With so many spectators, it felt like a Tour de France stage! Really fun. That is, until the leaders went off course about a half mile in. Probably a little frustrating for those guys. ;-)
I kept an easy pace, hiking up Squaw Valley as the sun came up, and chatting with the runners around me. Past winner Graham Cooper was recently back from a stress fracture, and enjoyed the unpredictability of a day that could end anywhere from Escarpment to Auburn. Meghan Arbogast and Connie Gardner were showing few signs of their stellar performance at the World 100k the previous Saturday (Team USA brought home the gold), and were cruising along and enjoying the sights.
We picked up the pace at Escarpment (mile 4) to avoid the mosquitoes, and before too long we were heading downhill. The single track was wonderful (thank you Mark Falcone!), and I ran along with Connie Gardner and got updates on the 100k race and her son getting ready for college. She’s pretty amazing! I wasn’t watching my pace much at this point, and just tried to stay comfortable. I tagged along with Steve “The Bomber” Ansell and Jenny Capel to Lyon Ridge (mile 10.5), where we got our first fuel of the day. They let us know we were just ahead of the 24-hour pace. Steve and I said “great!”, but Jenny felt it wasn't enough and kicked it up a notch, leaving us in the dust.
The scenery in the back country was breathtaking (or maybe that was the altitude?). I had the pleasure of running much of it with 7-time finisher and Western States Board Member Whit Rambach, who gave me a full history of the fires in the area. We were both happy to see that Red Star Ridge was making an amazing recovery, with plants and flowers sprouting up from the scorched earth. Rebirth and renewal everywhere we looked.
I got my drop bag at Red Star Ridge (mile 16), just in time to add a handkerchief head dress and some more sunscreen. It was starting to get warm! Whit and I made our way through the exposed hills until we heard the music pouring from Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8). These guys were rocking! The volunteers had me gassed, sponged, and on my way faster than Jeff Gordon at a NASCAR race. I donned the headphones for the next section, listening to an honorarium playlist of Michael Jackson tunes such as “Burn This Disco Out” and “Got To Be Startin’ Something”. Perhaps I should have worn a memorial white glove too. ;-) The recently burnt forest was a hill of mesmerizing black skeletons that stood like tombstones, with life bursting at their bases. The circle of life was everywhere.
Somewhere in the hike up to Robinson Flat I caught a toe and went down on the rocks. My handheld water bottles saved me from heavy skin damage (and gave a great Bellagio-like water show when both bottles emptied their contents), but my camera took the brunt of the fall and died a quick and painless death. I shall miss you, sweet Olympus 340! Luis Escobar offered me a hand up, and together we shuffled into the party known as Robinson Flat (mile 30). This was the first time I would see my crew, and they were ready for me! I took a seat while they swapped out my food and water, loaded me up with ice, and sent me on my way. Zoom!
They also caught me up on the race. Dave Mackey had come in first, with Hal Koerner just on his tail. Scott Jurek was about eight minutes back, and the rest were already 15-20 minutes behind. Anita Ortiz and Bev Abbs were well ahead in the women’s race, and Jenn Shelton had limped in with a hip injury, seemingly out of the race.
After a short climb, I hit the exposed ridge beyond Robinson Flat and began sucking in the heat of the day. The rocks were warming up, so it felt like a convection oven. It was hard to keep a quick speed without overheating, so I eased up a bit to balance it out. Miller’s Defeat (mile 34) came just in time since I was out of water, and for the first time I had slipped out of the 24-hour target finish time by about 12 minutes. I suspected this would be the case for the remainder of the day – the heat would keep me off pace, but hopefully I could make it up after Foresthill. I got another sponge bath, and trudged down towards Last Chance.
This section of the course was much hotter than I remembered, and the exposed sections were so toasty I began subconsciously holding my breath. The creeks were dry, so there was little assistance. I just started counting prime numbers to keep my mind off of it, sipping and savoring my water like a fine wine. I caught up to Marty Hoffman and Jimmy Dean Freeman and we pulled each other along to Last Chance (mile 43.8). I joined Dean Karnazes under the hoses of the volunteers, who informed us that the temperature had exceeded 105 degrees and was going to get hotter in the canyons. Sure enough, it was going to be one of THOSE States. ;-)
The volunteers were right – the farther we got into the canyon, the hotter it got. Dean charged right down into the heat, with a few runners behind him. The runners we passed were complaining of fairly serious problems – Tom had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, Brian Wyatt said his kidneys were throbbing, etc. I felt like Rocky (our Pug), breathing heavily out of my mouth and quickly slowing to a walk. When I reached the swinging bridge at the bottom, I was swerving and having trouble focusing. Ten steps later, all the condensation dissipated from my skin and my head felt like it was on fire. I got dizzy, fell to my knees, and vomited. Damn.
Dean helped me up to a small creek, where he was busy soaking himself every way he could. I pulled out my secret weapon – a 99 cent car wash sponge in my back pouch – and started dousing myself. After six or seven plunges, my head stopped pounding. I reached for a gel, but started dry heaving as soon as I saw it. Just then, another runner tumbled on the bridge, and we helped him to our little spring of hope. The best thing for me to do was just get moving, so I took one last soak and headed up the Devil’s Thumb climb with my pulse bulging out of my neck and head. It felt like it took forever to reach the top.
Devil’s Thumb (mile 48) was part MASH unit, part oasis. I only got halfway through my sentence when they took my weight (3 lbs under – 2 more and I would be forced to stop), whisked me under a tent, gave me a popsicle, and soaked the back of my neck with ice. These volunteers knew EXACTLY what to do. Whit Rambach came up and grabbed a few popsicles of his own, and others did the same. We quickly learned that “the Thumb” was taking its toll on many. Scott Jurek had dropped, and Wade Repta had blacked out on the way up. One woman told me that about one in four looked like me, and that I would be on my way in less than 10 minutes. I contemplated another hot canyon and wondered if it was wise to continue. But she was right, I felt better. Plus my crew would be at Michigan Bluff. Best to at least make it there.
I found a good shuffle speed heading into the next canyon, and kept leaning forward to keep the wind moving on my skin. Whit and I stopped at a nice water spot, which was enough to get us to El Dorado Creek (mile 52). It was tempting to stop and take a dip, but I noticed I was only 40 minutes off the 24-hour pace so I figured it was best to keep moving. As soon as the climb started, I began overheating again, and soon sprayed my half-digested snacks in one massive Technicolor yawn. The heat Beast was upon me again, so I just kept moving up the hill.
I was overjoyed to see my crew at Michigan Bluff (mile 55), and they sat me down and doused me in ice-cold towels. I detailed some of my issues, but they said I was doing better than most. They got me up to speed on the leaders, who had passed through four hours previous. Hal Koerner and Dave Mackey were neck and neck, and Leigh Shmidtt was about 15 minutes behind them. Anita Ortiz had broken away from Bev Abbs with a 20 minute lead, and was looking good. I started feeling better, and the crew sensed it and began packing it up. “Let’s keep going,” Brian would say, “you’ll want to make it to Foresthill”. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, other than there were certainly some good beer drinking spots there if I should drop. They filled me up again, and I was on my way.
The sun started to set over the hill, and the temperature dropped a few precious degrees. I signed a quick note on Dan Moore's poster, the founder of the Auburn Running Company who had died the day before, at the Bath Road aid station and used his positive thoughts to chug up the road to Foresthill with my crew. It was so much fun to see everyone at Foresthill! Friends, cohorts, and….wait a minute, that’s my 3-year-old! Sure enough, the family had come out to surprise me. I was instantly in perfect spirits. After a few kisses and change into night gear, my crew hustled me out of town. I was an hour and a half behind my 24-hour time, but thought there might still be a chance as the cool evening approached.
The next section was one of my favorites, for it was here that I ran my first ultra in 2005. In a huge déjà vu moment, I caught up to Marty Hoffman, who had taught me how to run downhill at that very same race and was one of the first to tell me about Western States! It’s all your fault, Marty. ;-) I cruised quickly down the single track, making it to Dardenelles (mile 65.7) just as the sun went down. My stomach and head were a bit shaky, but I was still in this race, dammit.
I had hoped that the night would bring much cooler temperatures, but the rocks were still toasting the trail from below. I felt good in motion, but horrible when still. I got some refreshments at Dardenelles, but violently vomited about five minutes afterwards. Ten minutes after that, I was having trouble keeping water down. I fought my way to Peachstone (mile 70.7) where I knew my friends Dwight and Kate Morejohn would be to help sort it out. I honored their aid station by sitting down and immediately unlunching all over my shoes and their chairs. Niiiice.
Kate was awesome, just patting me on the back and mixing a nice water/broth blend to settle my stomach. I could see they had 3-5 other runners in various stages of recovery, with a few flat out asleep. But they weren’t giving up, where they? HELL, no. Dwight gave me tons of advice and some tips on how to sight trails at night that worked wonders. Thanks to the good spirits of friends and volunteers, I got back on my feet and hit the trail again. But I had done the math in my head – I was now a scary 4% under weight, hadn’t held any calories for over five hours, and couldn’t even keep S! Caps down. To ensure I didn’t hurt myself, I would likely be throwing in the towel at the River Crossing.
The trail wound down to the river bank, and I could hear it all around me rushing like the wind. I entered this fascinating state of transcendence. At first I thought my headlight had gone out, since the darkness had closed in on that little square patch of light that had been my reality. But the darkness was everywhere, left, right, above, and even below my feet. My running felt effortless. It was like I was flying. The following thought just kept repeating through my head:
At your darkest moment, you shouldn’t fear the voidEach time I repeated it, the face would appear in front of me. Each time she would smile back. Was she telling me it’s okay? Or was she laughing because I stole that last line from the movie A Space Odyssey:2010? This was a blissful state. I had no idea how I was moving forward, but I knew I was flying. The stars in her eyes kept getting brighter and brighter, until they emerge as the lights of the Rucky Chucky aid station (mile 78). Wow. How’s that for a guiding light?
See it for what it truly is
An infinite pool of will and courage, as clear as spring water
Stare into it and see the reflection of your soul looking back
For many, this is the face of God
Look into her eyes
It’s full of stars
My God, it’s full of stars
I pulled into Rucky Chucky higher than a kite in orbit. I don’t even remember them weighing me or what they said, just a lot of smiles and encouragement. I got an escort down to the river where I had the childish desire to play in the water. I debated whether to tell my crew that I was hallucinating and having a spiritual breakthrough of monumental proportions, but the sobering cold waters of the American River told me to just share the facts so we could figure out what to do. Brian and Dan got to work on my now-soaked shoes, and I told them I had thrown up everything since Dardenelles and was having trouble keeping water down. They paused with concern, but quickly broke it down. One cup of broth here, one cup of broth at Green Gate, and we’ll see how it goes. Dan said that another Vespa might do the trick, so we saved that for Green Gate.
We hiked up to Green Gate together, but not once re-addressing our decision. Their goal was to get me to the finish, and as long as we were moving forward, it was progress. Brian was great at getting me focused on the right goal – the “C” goal of finishing – and that I needed to pay attention to the three hour buffer I had. He was right that I couldn’t walk it in from here. There was still work to do.
At Green Gate, I took my broth and Vespa without any issues, and put a smile on my face for my crew. “I’ll see you at Hwy 49, and bring some sunscreen”. They smiled back with that half-concerned look that only true friends can deliver, and wished me well. I had my own goals for this stretch – find a rhythm, and/or find that darkness again. Find her face and see her laugh once more. Either I was going to make it to the finish, or have a helluva story to tell.
I cruised through the next section, much in thanks to Glenn Meeth and his cheery pacer, Tracy. She did a great job of talking about various things, then fitting in a "why don't we run to the next light". I didn’t dawdle on the calorie math anymore, but just tried to stay focused on a good pace. I came into Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85) feeling good and adding 15 minutes to my buffer, but flunked the medical test by being 8 lbs under weight (about 5%). They sat me down until I could drink three cups of broth, which took back 10 minutes of my gain. Alas! They were more concerned by my answer about the color of my urine, which was “I haven’t peed today, so I don’t know…but my vomit is nice and clear”. I got the dunce cap award for sure. I chugged down the broth, went on my way, promptly vomiting it all back up about a half mile down the trail.
Brown’s Bar (mile 90) was a great party, and I just cruised through with a quick refill of water and some Jolly Rancher candies. The Vespa was really kicking in now, so I had a nice mellow level of energy. The sun came up as I worked my way down to the American River once more, and the animals were all waking up. The circadian rhythm gave a nice little boost up the last climb. Such as fascinating experience to see two sunrises in one run.
At Hwy 49 (mile 93), Brian was in his running shoes and ready. We jogged through the beautiful area of Cool, CA, and he caught me up on the winners. Hal Koerner had held on for a repeat win, while Anita Ortiz powered through for a win in her first attempt at the distance (using only 36 gels!). He also let me know that my pal Jasper Halekas had gotten fourth, sneaking under 17 hours. Wow! Later I would learn that there was a three way race for M9 and M10, with Mark Lantz, AJ Wilkins, and Victor Ballesteros (who clocked the fastest time of the day between the river and the finish) within seconds of each other. Mark got M9, Andy got M10, and Victor got 11th – his consolation prize was that he won the Montrail Ultracup Series, which was the biggest payday of the day.
At No Hands Bridge (mile 96), I officially ran out of gas so Brian and I walked it in. Dan joined us at Robie Point, and our exhausted bodies turned the corner to the track, I could barely contain my emotions. Oh, the places we had gone today! I could barely recount the person I was just 28 hours ago.
And I couldn’t have done it without the crew, friends, volunteers, and others along the way. As I shared my journey with Jeff Riley (21:38 today), he summed it up well by saying “it may not have been the race you wanted, but it was the experience we are all secretly hoping to have”. He’s absolutely right.
As I crossed the finish line and soaked my feet in the ice pool, it was clear that everyone had an amazing story whether they finished or not, or they had crewed, paced, or run. This was an epic day of adventure, survival, discovery, breakthroughs, camaraderie, and triumph of the human spirit. You could spend your whole life looking for a taste of any one of these things. Or you can spend one day to get enough of all of it to last a lifetime.
My sincerest thanks to everyone who helped me get to the finish line. I know I've personally read the "I never would have made it" on many a blog, but I'm telling you, it's the truth (honest to blog!). I will drink a beer in each of your honor this week, that is, as soon as I can hold it down. ;-)
From the finisher page:
|1||M1||Hal Koerner||M||33||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||09:24pm||16:24:55||Finished|
|2||279||Tsuyoshi Kaburagi||M||40||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||09:52pm||16:52:06||Finished|
|3||113||Jez Bragg||M||28||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||09:54pm||16:54:26||Finished|
|4||21||Jasper Halekas||M||33||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||09:56pm||16:56:26||Finished|
|5||401||Kevin Sullivan||M||38||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||09:59pm||16:59:33||Finished|
|6||29||Zachariah Miller||M||33||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||10:34pm||17:34:12||Finished|
|7||332||Leigh Schmitt||M||36||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||10:49pm||17:49:37||Finished|
|8||M2||Erik Skaden||M||37||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||11:22pm||18:22:44||Finished|
|9||79||Mark Lantz||M||43||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||11:45pm||18:45:56||Finished|
|10||M4||Andy Jones-Wilkins||M||41||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||11:46pm||18:46:52||Finished|
|1||22||Anita Ortiz||F||45||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||11:24pm||18:24:17||Finished|
|2||31||Krissy Moehl||F||31||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||12:26am||19:26:02||Finished|
|3||F2||Beverley Anderson-Abbs||F||45||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||12:53am||19:53:14||Finished|
|4||F1||Nikki Kimball||F||38||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||01:55am||20:55:43||Finished|
|5||F4||Caren Spore||F||41||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||02:17am||21:17:22||Finished|
|6||F5||Meghan Arbogast||F||48||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||02:33am||21:33:36||Finished|
|7||80||Elizabeth Vitalis||F||44||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||04:11am||23:11:31||Finished|
|8||219||Jamie Frink||F||36||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||04:37am||23:37:15||Finished|
|9||136||Jenny Capel||F||36||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||04:49am||23:49:27||Finished|
|10||32||Connie Gardner||F||45||Auburn Finish Line||100.2||06:34am||25:34:16||Finished|