Friday, July 06, 2012

Running through History: A Western States Race Report

Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night would keep me from completing Western States.  In many ways Western States was like many other races but then there is the history that is ever present.  I’ve read a lot about the history of Western States just because it is the history of ultra trail running and so when I came running into various aid stations, Red Star Ridge, Dusty Corners, Robinson Flats, Devils Thumb (actually this aid station is called Hell’s Kitchen, Devils Thumb is the terrain feature), Foresthill, No Hands Bridge etc…it was like, “Wow, I’m at such and such aid station, this is where Ann Trason started closing the gap to almost become the only woman to ever win Western States outright!”  or “This is the spot where Gordy Ashleigh stopped to help pull a horse out of the water” or “Here is where Geoff Roes came flying past Anton Krupicka to for the win in one of the most hotly contested Western States ever.”  It was a real trip and a real treat.

However, in many other ways it was a lot like most of the other big 100 mile races, lots of volunteers, very well organized, lots of energy and excitement, and great trails in remote places. In this respect I don’t think it was necessarily any better than Rocky Raccoon, Javelina Jundred, Bighorn, Rio del Lago, Lean Horse, Leadville or Wasatch; my seven other 100 mile finishes. 

From a racing perspective, I had a great time at Western States and feel like I ran close to a perfect race.  Just about the only thing I can really think of that could have improved my performance would be to have focused exclusively on mountain running in my early season but running the Boston and Lincoln marathons were very important to me and my big ultrarunning goal for this year is to finish the Grand Slam, which of course doesn’t require that you lay down great times for each of the races individually.  The other thing was that an old injury reared its head early in the race and caused me to have problems running steep, rocky downhill sections so I took those areas much more slowly than normal, which, all in all, may not have been a bad thing early in the race when it was slippery and wet.

My big fear coming into Western States was the heat.  Western States is famous for the heat in the canyons, which can reach into the low 100s and is commonly in the mid 90s.  I had a lot of heat training under my belt but still, I ran Boston this year during the third hottest year in its 116 year history.  I was ready for a break...and I got it.  This year the weather was a fantastic both day and night and into the next day.  I fact, it was the second coolest Western States on record.  The first 8 hours of the race was a bit harsh but the reality is the harsh spots were short lived and separated by long bouts of what amounted to fog.

At the 0500 start in Squaw Valley it was about 45 degrees and very nice.  However a cold front was moving in and by the time we climbed the 3500 feet in 4.5 miles to the ridgeline at the Escarpment aid station there were wind gusts of up to 60 mph, the temp was hovering around 37 degrees and there was driving sleet.  The sleet stung like hell because my skin was semi-numb from the cold and the sleet was being driven by the high winds.  I was wearing a short sleeve shirt and shorts because my major concern was overheating on that first big climb but it turned out to be ok because like I said, any of the bad conditions were short lived.

After Escarpment the trail ducks off the ridge and into the protection of the woods where it was a bit warmer and less windy and the sleet turned to a light drizzling rain.  For the first 8 hours we ran in a mixture of drizzle, fog, rain, sleet and high winds depending on the immediate terrain, elevation and exposure.  One funny incident occurred just before Robinson Flat.  I was about a quarter mile away from the aid station and a volunteer came jogging toward me and he said, “Don’t worry, the weather is about to break and it’s going to be nice and sunny.”  As soon as I came into Robinson Flat it started pouring rain, a cold rain that was harder than any we had see so far and it would be the hardest rain of the day.  When I weighed in at Robinson Flat I was so soaked that my weight was up eight pounds.

Once the weather cleared it was mild and sunny.  The trails were slightly damp so we didn’t have a lot of dust to breathe, which can become a serious issue.  Conditions were perfect for some good running.  By this point in the race I was free of the pain that had slowed my descents earlier in the race but I still took the steep ones slow because I didn’t want to bring it back.  My approach worked because for the rest of the race it never did come back and I was still able to run the easier downhill grades without a problem.

The mild temps also made the climb up Devil’s Thumb much more bearable.  There is pretty much nothing that is worse than doing a long, steep, hot climb in a wooded area where any hope of a breeze is completely blocked but that was not the case today, today it was simply a matter of being ready and able to climb.  I passed seven people climbing Devils Thumb and made it to the top in good shape.  Of course the climb to the top is followed by a fairly steep descent so about half the people I passed were able to pass me back on the way down.

When I got to Foresthill at mile 62 my lovely wife and my California pacer were waiting for me and had everything set up for a shoe and sock change, a fresh shirt and some night running clothes packed into my hydration pack.  I was still feeling good though my legs were getting stiff and sore and I was a bit wobbly when I got up to run again.  After the gear exchange me and my pacer were off for the last half of the race and into little known portions of the trail that includes little know aid stations such as Dardanelles, Peachstone and Ford’s Bar.

I can’t say I remember much of anything about this portion of the race but somewhere around mile 70 I developed a pain in my right big toe and thought that my sock was just on too tight like my foot was jammed forward and pressing hard against the cloth but I took off my shoe and sock and adjusted things but the pain didn’t go away so I just lived with it because I didn’t want to waste time messing around.  After the race when I was able to check out my feet in the light of day I discovered that a blister had developed under my toenail and was lifting the toenail up out of the nail bed.  I’m not quite sure how that happened, maybe I was favoring my left and that caused some jamming of my right foot, who knows.  In any case, I’ll probably lose it in the next couple weeks, hopefully before the Vermont 100.

Before the race I had hoped that the American River would be running shallow enough at the Rucky Chucky crossing so that I would wade across holding the rope they have stretched across the river.  Somehow that just seems like the way the river should be crossed, not on a raft like they do in high water years.  I got my wish and it was pretty cool, both literally and figuratively.  According to my splits I hit Rucky Chucky at 12 minutes after midnight and upon arrival I threatened to drop from the race because they were serving breakfast burritos.  I told them I was just going to hang out there and eat burritos until they kicked me out.  They kicked me out immediately, maybe because they knew I was from New Mexico and were afraid of my capacity for eating burritos.

 So, being cut off from the burritos I turned my attention to the river crossing and while the air temperatures were fine that water was a real eye opener, especially when I was in it up to mid hip and the chafing from my shorts was submerged.  Still, it was a lot of fun to cross and when we got to the other side my pacer and I just chugged on up the trail to Green Gate where we were met again by the GeekGrl and crew for a change of shoes and socks.

 The stretch between Green Gate and the Highway 49 crossing was my “deep into the night, zombie running” experience.  I had periods where I was definitely slogging along trying to stay focused and people were passing me by and other times where I was suddenly running again and passing people who looked as bad as I had just moments earlier.  I don’t remember specifically going through the Auburn Lake Trails or Brown’s Bar aid stations but I know I did because my splits are there and I also remember it taking a really long time to get to one of them.  I remember you could hear the aid station for a long time before you reached it and you could even catch occasional glimpses of light.  I think it may have been in a canyon or gully with several twists and turns between one side and the other though there wasn’t a lot of climbing or descending involved.  It was weird, it was cruel, like the aid station had the ability to manifest and then disappear like it was fluctuating back and forth between parallel planes of existence.

Time ceased to have any meaning and the distances were incalculable, at least by me.  Everything was at one and the same time both near and unbelievably far away.  I didn’t have any focus or lack of focus, I wasn’t struggling or doing particularly well.  I existed and that is all.  I had become an automaton capable of varying degrees of movement but nothing more.  This late into a 100 mile race this is actually a good state of being to find yourself in because nothing really matters.  You have one mile until the next aid station, fine, 8 miles, fine, steep climb, fine, flat wide trails, fine.  As Pink Floyd would say, you have become comfortably numb.

At some point the gray light of morning came and I started to regain my humanity.  I could see the world again and I felt like I was part of it again.  Shortly after the sun came up my pacer and I reached the Highway 49 crossing where they were serving bacon, potatoes and sausage and I made sure to sample it all before the long, mellow, glorious descent down to No Hands Bridge.

By the time I reached No Hands Bridge I knew my race was done, I had made it and the remainder of the course was just an epilogue to the adventure I had lived over the past 25 plus hours.  I jogged across No Hands Bridge and then began the climb up to Robie Point and the finish line at Placer high school.  Some people will tell you about that last climb but you will not be prepared for it because it sucks, period.  It sucks and it doesn’t end until the bitter end.  There is an aid station at Robie point but I just slogged on by without a second look.  I’m not even sure what they had there or if it is a full aid station.  For all I know they could have been dispensing gold bullion and diamonds but you are still mid climb and just want to be done and so who really cares.

When you finally reach the track at Placer high I doubt it matters how spent you are, how emotionally numb you have become, I can’t imagine treading that hallowed ground not igniting a fire within that brings joy to your movement no matter how slow, no matter how stiff no matter how sore.  I relished my three quarter lap around that track, I relished my finish.  It was the experience of a lifetime.

Physically I’m feeling good after taking five days off for recovery.  I started running again slowly, six miles at a crack the weekend after Western States and I’ll probably fit in another 50 or so miles before Vermont.  I toe the line at the Vermont 100 on July 21st and feel like I’ll have a strong run.  I’m praying for good weather there as well but am aware that heat waves have been sweeping the Midwest and eastern seaboard so I’m kind of planning on hot but my motivation is strong and my mind is ready for stage two of the Grand Slam.


  1. You've hereby reached legendary Super Hero status in my book. Wow! Congratulations - you simultaneously make it sound easy and...excruciating.

    What a wonderful experience, thanks for sharing!

  2. Very, very cool. Congratulations!!