Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Decade Later - How Western States Changed Everything For Me

Ten years ago, I was obsessed with the Western States 100m Endurance Run. Not curious, or "highly focused", but flat out obsessed. I can admit that now, particularly after reading my old blog posts. As I approached my first attempt at this historic race in 2009, I devoured any and all information I could find, sharing with like-minded runners in endless online rants and discussions. Yes, it was overkill, but it also fueled a deep spiritual fire that continues to this day.

The epitome of this obsession was the "synchroblog", a genius idea cooked up by now-WS100-Race-Director Craig Thornley in an attempt to organize our shared passion. Five bloggers would coordinate articles on the same States-related subject, and publish on the same day. We had a full range of experience with this great race, from newbies (that's me!), to recently experienced and coming back for race #2 (Sean Meissner and iRunFar's Bryon Powell who would be crewing for AJW), to the experts (Craig Thornley and then-six-time-top-10-finisher Andy Jones Wilkins, aka, AJW). Each shared perspectives and tips, as well as deeper thoughts on the history and culture of the race. In honor of that project, four of us are synchroblogging again today to share our current thoughts on Western States. Read up!

Now before you psh-aw the idea of a synchroblog, let me remind you of what technology was like waaaay back in the two thousand 'oughts. There was no Instagram (my God, how did we live?!?), no running podcasts, Facebook was only for college students, Twitter had just barely invented the hashtag, the book Born to Run hadn't been published, Billy Yang/JB Benna/Jam-Jam/Salomon TV hadn't begun releasing epic feature films every month, and most mobile phones were of the flip variety (Sean still has his if you need a reference photo). There were about 50 good trail running bloggers, and for those needing a daily fix in between the monthly issues of UltraRunning and Trail Runner magazines, it was a godsend.

The godsend could also be a curse, if misused. In retrospect, I digested far too much information in preparation for my first WS100. I assembled every trick in the book thanks to all that info - compression socks, feet so taped and powdered that a geisha would be jealous, chia seeds, supplements of every conceivable (legal) kind, four kinds of lotion, three kinds of sunscreen, highly detailed A/B/C goals, and every other shortcut the Internet could fabricate. I mean, just look at me:

(Adding 10 minutes to my 2009 finish sorting through my bag of tricks)
And guess what happened? I completely blew up. I went out too fast, failed my weigh ins, vomited gallons of optimally-mixed-whatever, and staggered like a zombie through the night and morning until I crossed the finish line 10 hours after my goal time. But you know what? In the deepest of holes, dancing with my physical and mental limits, I felt universally connected to nature in a way that I had never experienced before. The face of God even appeared in the night sky, by far my most candid (unaided) hallucination. The mantra that got me through it, and one that I still think of nearly every day, was the following:
At your darkest moment, you shouldn’t fear the void 
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 have been forever grateful for that day (and night, and day). It grounded me spiritually, right to the bedrock of my soul. It's why I encourage every trail runner to try at least one 100-miler...what awaits you beyond the finish is nothing short of enlightenment. You spend your remaining days hoping the shit hits the fan at Mach 2 in any part of your life, just so you can dig deep and release the phoenix again and again.

Now, flash forward seven years later at my second attempt at Western States in 2016. I have a hundred more ultras and marathons under my belt, and the Zen-like calm in my preparation shows it. There's no crazy gear, no special snacks, no supplements...I toe the line dressed as the stereotypical minimalist American ultrarunner, in short shorts, even shorter socks, and a few bandanas for ice. I beam with pride and adoration, not for my personal journey, but for those around me willing to let this race take everything they have and more. We are warriors of the soul!

My mind and heart are ready for the epic day, my crew experienced, and my A, B, and C goal are one and the same...sub-24 for the silver buckle, no other heroics needed. I am at a peace from start to finish, and every moment is a shared miracle. My goal comes together (23:40 for silver!) with a round of smiles from the family and crew that saw me through it. Their names are inscribed on the back of that buckle, and with it, a lifetime right to wear it themselves upon request. I have no doubt they will carry it with the respect and pride deserved...they were there for every step.

(Got it!)
In between those two races, I found there are lots of ways to tap into the fountain of passion for States. I've crewed, volunteered, filmed, joined trail maintenance crews, paced teammates to Top 10 finishes, and even dressed up like a devil at the bottom of the dreaded Devil's Thumb climb to coax runners to the creek with ice cold beers (no takers so far, ha, ha).

(Right this way...)
As archaic as blogging is these days, it does provide a great way to reflect and appreciate the journey. Western States is now as popular as ever, and I'll continue to put my name in the hat every year until I can't, with full knowledge it could be 5-7 years before the next opportunity to toe the line (M70-74 age group record, I'm coming for you!!!). I think of that group of young, eager runners that started the first synchroblog, and where they took those passions. Craig Thornley is now the WS100 Race Director, and has implemented tons of improvements, as well as helped launch the Ultra Trail World Tour. Bryon Powell's iRunFar is the de facto informational source for our sport across the globe (in all verses of social media), and well beyond anything us bloggers could have imagined. He's also provided a home for AJW's excellent insights and commentary, which he has shared in his dream of completing enough races for a 10-time Finisher Buckle. Sean Meissner has clocked 100+ more ultras, becoming one of the great stage racing champions along the way, and still shares his knowledge through coaching, and getting many more runners to their first WS100.

Thanks to States, I have a foundational love for our sport that makes it easy to be passionate year after year. No matter where I am on the planet, I subconsciously find our community of mountain people and align our passions with seductive stories of States. This year I'll be headed to Iceland, the Eiger in Switzerland, down the face of Mt. Hood, and if I'm lucky, a new trail adventure somewhere between Squaw Valley and Auburn in late June. I know many of you share this same unquenchable and unquestioned passion for the mountains, and I hope to see you out there to share a few vistas, steps, and stories.

And if this doesn't feel familiar to you, may I suggest perusing this list of WS qualifying races and starting a journey of your own... ;-)

See ya on the trails...


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