“Congratulations! Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!”
- Dr Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
If the quote above sounds familiar – aside from the obvious fact that it’s from the greatest children's book ever written - it’s because I used it last summer, in what was supposed to be my final post prior to the 2008 Western States Endurance Run.
Of course, that race never happened, so I didn’t want to use the same quote prior to this year’s Western States for fear that I’d trigger some kind of last minute bad juju to threaten the race again this year. However, Dr Seuss’s flowing verse to a bold, starry-eyed child embarking on the adventure of a lifetime turned out to be the perfect description of my race weekend.
The Western States 100 took me to some unbelievable places – both physically and psychologically. Some were wondrous and exciting. Others were dark and terrifying. A few of them were just plain bizarre. The end result was a journey that was both humbling and empowering, exhausting but energizing, discouraging yet ultimately uplifting.
With that in mind, here’s the race report – with excerpts from the book to help guide us:
“You'll be on your way up! You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.”
It seems quite appropriate that the check-in and start areas for the Western States 100 are in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley – because the first thing that strikes you when you arrive here is how everybody around you is the real deal.
Everywhere you look at Squaw, you see somebody from the cover of Ultrarunning magazine, or match faces to names you’ve seen at the top of race results all over the country. Collectively, they’re the highest fliers of the sport. Yes, there’s a lottery system that keeps a lot of people out of Western States, but the race has have other means (by points series and guaranteed entries to previous top-10 finishers) to draw top runners – and the result is a constellation of ultrarunning stars hobnobbing with regular folks in the days leading up to the race.
Even the “regular” folks in this race look hardcore – after all, it's not like there's a half-marathon option at this event – after doing the necessary training to complete 100 miles. As you’re walking around this crowd, seeing Olympic rings all over the place, and gazing at the high heights you’ll be climbing on race day, you can’t help but be inspired. (And probably more than a little bit intimidated, but you try not to think of that.)
Squaw Valley to Escarpment: miles 0-3.5
“You're off the Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!”
In case you hadn’t guessed by now, the above pics were taken on the day before the race, because on race morning …
All was dark on the start line. And with only 13 minutes to go before the race, where was everybody? …
Oh, here they are. I figured it was best to stay away from the mob as much as possible at the start, so I wouldn’t get sucked into foolishly trying to keep pace with anybody.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say that they want to establish position before the trail turns to single track (where it’s tougher to pass other runners), but the majority of this first steep climb is on wide open fire roads, so fighting for position seems largely unnecessary.
The fire roads eventually turn to single track near the top, but at this point, I was more concerned with trying to not slide off the mountain than with trying to pass people.
Besides, I was primarily interested in enjoying the great sights after soaring (well, OK … mostly walking) to these high heights.
At the top of the Escarpment (elevation 8700’), with snow behind me, and Lake Tahoe in the background.
Escarpment to Red Star Ridge: miles 3.5-16.0
“It's opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen, and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.”
From the top of Escarpment, the next several miles roll gently – and mostly downhill – through some of the most beautiful wide open scenery you could ever ask for.
The air is filled with the scent of pines, the trail meanders through forests and across rocky outcroppings, and it’s still early enough that most people are feeling pretty good. In other words, this is the part of the race to savor.
Unfortunately, this is where I started having a few minor troubles, but I was fairly certain that they would be short-term problems. I penciled myself in for a shoe change at Robinson Flat (a longer story that I’ll explain in an upcoming shoe review), and figured I’d just work my way through the unusual muscle cramping I was experiencing.
However, I have to admit that while absorbing as much of the majestic surroundings as possible, a small thought was taking shape in my head: things that shouldn’t be happening to my body – at least, not yet - were starting to happen. It wasn’t the most comforting thought to carry with me through the next several miles.
Red Star Ridge to Robinson Flat: miles 16.0 – 29.7
“And then things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along. You'll start happening too.”
Obviously, it’s not unusual to go through some dark places during an ultramarathon … but it was unusual for me to go through them so early in the race. By the time I reached the Duncan Canyon aid station, I felt like the race had already thrown me a knockdown punch, and I needed to pick myself off the mat.
I was having foot issues. And muscle issues. And stomach issues (more on that later). And the heat was just starting to become a major factor - by the afternoon, it would approach 100 degrees. Suddenly, gentle stretches of trail like this didn’t seem so gentle anymore.
That’s why it was great to see this sign after leaving the Duncan Canyon station. Would my pain stop getting worse? I honestly had no idea. What I decided, though, was that whatever things kept happening, I’d just go right along.
And then I started happening, too. I was able to run much of this stretch of formerly burnt (and rerouted, in past years) forest feeling fairly comfortable.
I always love seeing these burnt-out areas in their early stages of repair. The symbolism of it is simple and profound: life prevails. No matter what devastation has been forced upon it, the drive to recover and prosper is always greater. It’s a nice metaphor for ultrarunners, I think.
Robinson Flat to Dusty Corners: miles 29.7 – 38.0
“I'm sorry to say so, but sadly, it's true
That Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”
I finally made the long climb out of the canyon to Robinson Flat, promptly grabbed my drop bag and found a chair. Within about 10 seconds, I received some foot care assistance from a wonderful volunteer, and felt newly confident as I headed into the long downhill stretches that awaited us.
My feet were much better, but the rest of my bang-ups and hang-ups were just getting started. My body was doing strange things: even on easy stretches like this one, I was getting sharp spasms in almost every muscle group. Sometimes the pains were so severe as to stop me in my tracks, and forced me to adjust my normal stride in hopes of finding a more comfortable gait.
With more than 60 miles left to go, the truth of the situation slowly sank in: this could turn out to be an extremely long, difficult race.
Dusty Corners to Devil’s Thumb: miles 38.0 – 47.8
“On and on you will hike, and I know you'll hike far
And face up to your problems whatever they are.”
I’ve gone through enough difficulty in ultras to know that your mental outlook is the most important weapon in your arsenal to overcome adversity; therefore, what distressed me the most was how miserable I was feeling about my plight through the second quarter of the race. Basically, my attitude was terrible, and that meant big trouble.
Fortunately, since I attended the training camp this spring, I knew what lay ahead: a long descent to Deadwood Canyon, with a river crossing at the bottom. I immediately knew how to face up to my problems: I’d head down to the river, and let the water wash all the negative energy off of me.
This borders on corny spirituality, but it’s absolutely true: at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, I took all of my worries into the river, and submerged myself in the living water. I stayed underwater for about 20 seconds, rubbing my face and head, feeling the current sweep the physical and emotional dirt of the first 46 miles away from my body – and when I broke the surface, I had a renewed spirit. It was like being born again, right in the shadow of Devil’s Thumb.
From that point forward, I made a commitment that no matter what else happened, I’d stay positive and focus on whatever needed to be done to get me to the finish. It was good thing I did … because the worst was yet to come.
Devils’ Thumb to Foresthill: miles 47.8 – 62.0
“You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on. You'll be left in a Lurch.”
After climbing Devil’s Thumb without problems, I made my way to the bottom of El Dorado Creek enjoyed another dip in the cool water. This photo could be my last happy moment of the race – because it was shortly thereafter that the wheels of my wagon started to completely collapse.
(And a brief warning before we continue: this storyline could get kind of gross.)
On the long climb to Michigan Bluff, several body systems seemed to abruptly shut down – chief of which was my digestive system. I became terribly nauseated, and pulled over on the side of the trail to deal with it. About 5 minutes later, I did it again.
By this time, I must have looked pretty bad – each of the runners who passed me through this section asked if I was OK, and one even gave me a handful of Tums to help settle my stomach down.
Five minutes later, the Tums were on the trail as well.
When I finally staggered into Michigan Bluff, I saw concern in the eyes of the medical volunteers. I was 5% below my starting weight, feeling lightheaded, and battling the toughest heat of the day.
As luck would have it, the absolute best person in the world for such a situation was right there: Gretchen, who had been volunteering and spectating throughout the weekend, and just happened to be at Michigan Bluff in time for my meltdown. After the medic guided me into a chair, Gretchen gave me a back rub and slowly nursed me back to life. She was every bit the guardian angel I needed at that moment.
I spent more than 25 minutes at Michigan Bluff, watching countless other runners come and go as I sipped on broth and nibbled ginger sticks, took about 10 swallows to eat a single Gu pack, and attempted a couple of false starts that were derailed by dizziness. Eventually I regained my composure enough to take a few tentative steps away from the aid station, and decided to continue on down the trail.
Incidentally – remember that slowly-consumed Gu pack? It would be the last food to stay in my stomach for the remainder of the race.
Foresthill to Dardanelles: miles 62.0 – 65.7
“You can get so confused that you'll start in to race
Down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
And grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space.”
Given the amount of time I burned at Michigan Bluff, and considering how lousy I was feeling, I knew at this point that my hopes of breaking 24 hours were fairly remote – but I also knew that I had one wildcard left to play that might change the game: when I rolled into Foresthill, I’d be joined by my pacer Brian, which might be the spark I needed to bounce back.
I was doing all sorts of crazy math in my head, realizing that I’d have to make up as much time as I could, starting as soon as possible. I was able to first jog, and then run down into Volcano Canyon, and I picked up my pace again within a mile of the Foresthill aid station (where, miraculously, Gretchen was there to say hi again. At least, I think it was her – I’m pretty sure I didn’t start hallucinating until much later.)
When Brian joined me, I wasn’t thinking clearly at all. All I could talk about was getting back on the trail and making up time, and started barking orders about how much ground we had to make up (on a related note – from this point forward, suffice it to say that I wasn’t exactly a pleasure to be around. My pacer deserved combat pay for his work shift during the night – more about him a bit later.).
Shortly after leaving Foresthill, I made a desperate last stand of sorts, trying to see what I was still capable of, and if I still had any prayer of staying on my goal pace. I raced down the long wiggled single track trails, trying to gain as much ground as possible in the daylight. The plan worked fairly well, as I rolled into Dardanelles with my best average split of the entire race.
Dardanelles to Ford’s Bar: miles 65.7 – 73.0
“You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are then, that you'll be in a Slump.
And when you're in a Slump, you're not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for my already depleted body to go into complete shutdown mode after that kind of effort – and the first major hill out of Dardanelles proved to be the unpleasant bump that sent me spiraling into a capital-S Slump.
Suddenly, I couldn’t walk uphill without hyperventilating, and I couldn’t hyperventilate without becoming extremely lightheaded. I emptied my stomach out a few more times – and now, in addition to not taking solid foods, I couldn’t keep any fluids down, either.
That’s when I knew that all bets were off in regards to finishing within a goal time, or even finishing at all. I also knew that the rest of the evening definitely wouldn’t be very much fun.
Ford’s Bar to Rucky Chucky: miles 73.0 – 78.0
“The Waiting Place ... for people just waiting …
… waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
Or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
Or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
Or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.”
I walked the rest of the way to the Ford’s Bar aid station, and began what would become my aid station routine: crash into a chair while Brian brought me a cup of some kind of liquid - either broth, soda, or water – drink the fluid in small sips, then hold completely still to let my crippled stomach try to process it.
I drank, then waited … then drank a bit more, and waited some more. Each aid station stop grew longer and longer, which was completely fine by me. My main concern was to simply to maintain some sustenance for the continued journey ahead.
To my dismay, that kind of rebound wasn’t happening; instead of getting better, I was getting worse and growing weaker as the evening wore on. And these waiting places became the darkest places of all.
Rucky Chucky to Green Gate: miles 78.0 – 79.8
“There's a very good chance -
You'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon
That can scare you so much you won't want to go on.”
Prior to race day, the part of Western States I was most looking forward to was crossing the American River in the middle of the night – but now, as I hobbled to the rope line that guided me through the waist deep water, that anticipation was mixed with more than a little bit of fear.
I wasn’t in much condition to keep my footing in the moving rapids, but pulled through with the help and encouragement of a whole line of volunteers. Beyond the river, we walked all the way up the 2-mile climb to the Green Gate aid station.
Green Gate to Auburn Lake Trails: miles 79.8 – 85.2
“You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.”
This is probably a good time to mention something else about my pacer: he was absolutely perfect. Especially in comparison to some of the strange birds we saw out there – the drill sergeant type, the enthusiastic cheerleader, the fawning boyfriend/girlfriend, etc - I felt like I hit the pacer lotto.
Brian let me travel ahead of him on nearly every trail; he walked when I walked, shuffled when I shuffled, and ran when I ran, all without question or complaint. He made small talk at the right times, gave me course information when I needed it, and knew when to shut the heck up. He never questioned whether or not I should continue through the night, and – perhaps most noble of all – he didn’t make squeamish faces during all the times I was throwing up.
He also didn’t make fun of me when another strange thing started happening: namely, I started seeing things. Small animals, in particular.
More than a few times, we had an exchange that went something like this:
Me: Hey, look at that – be sure to take a picture of it.
Brian: What? Where?
Me: Those two prairie dogs over there … they’re standing right on the trail.
Brian: Um … that’s a fallen branch.
Me: Really? OK. Nevermind then.
Perhaps the strange bird out there was actually me – but at least I had a great companion bird by my side. And for that, I’m forever grateful.
Auburn Lake Trails to Brown’s Bar: miles 85.2 – 89.9
“Somehow you'll escape all that waiting and staying -
You'll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”
Miraculously, at the tail end of the darkness, I was actually able to maintain a steady jog while keeping my stomach contents on the inside. We rolled into the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, where we spoke with Pamela (the aid station captain) and started my usual sit-sip-puke routine, and a funny thing occurred: the puke part never happened.
We started out of ALT at a walk, but eventually broke in to a jog, as the first gray traces of dawn started spilling onto the trail. Shortly before we arrived at Brown’s Bar, Brian told me that we had run each of the four miles faster than the one before.
Brown’s Bar is a crazy place – there were Halloween decorations, cross dressers, and classic rock blasting from loudspeakers in the middle of the forest. Sitting there taking it all in, I started to feel like I was finally escaping all my waiting and staying, and at long last heading toward a brighter place.
Brown’s Bar to No Hands Bridge: miles 89.9 – 96.8
" With banner flip-flapping, once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!”
After a backbreaking climb to Highway 49 (at mile 93 – quite cruel), I continued running almost all the way through rolling pastures and a long descent to another place I’ve waited forever to see, No Hands Bridge.
By this time, the sun was fully risen, and it was starting to get warm again – but the morning heat wasn’t going to weaken me any further after I’d come this far. With just over three miles to go, I felt ready for anything … I only wish I had felt that way about 10 hours earlier.
No Hands Bridge to Placer High School (Finish): miles 96.8 – 100.2
“And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”
The final two miles include a long climb to Robie Point and through the neighborhood surrounding Placer High School - but by the time I hit the streets, it didn’t matter one bit. For the first time in 28 hours, I was absolutely certain that I would make it to the finish.
It’s one thing to have the confidence and willpower to succeed at all costs, but it’s something else to actually know with certainty that it would happen. Despite all of my determination, I always felt – beginning very early in the day - like I was just one more mistake or problem away from being unable to continue. But then I was stepping onto the track, and charging towards the finish line.
A friend of mine is on the Western States board, and he was there to give me my medal. He looks happy to see me here – but not nearly as happy as I was to see him. Besides, I really needed somebody to help hold me up.
“So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life's a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
After that, things became kind of a blur. I grabbed a quick shower at my hotel, returned to Placer High School to receive my belt buckle at the awards ceremony, and was halfway back to the car before I thought, “Hey, maybe I should take a picture of this thing.”
It wasn’t that I was ambivalent about the award (or the fact that it was bronze instead of silver), but I had already received everything I could ask for from the Western States 100. What initially felt like disappointment at not running a sub-24-hour time quickly evolved into immense pride and satisfaction from staring down more demons and dangers than I ever imagined, and coming through them in one piece. I have more than enough memories and good feelings to last me quite a while.
Truthfully, I’m not the kind of person who can do this sort of thing all the time; I need to play both sides of life’s Great Balancing Act throughout the year, which means that I need to throw a lot of weight on the other side of the scale when an adventure like this one is all said and done.
So that’s what I’m doing now: I’ll take a brief blog hiatus for a while, then ease back into the training and writing as time and other commitments allow. It took me two years to finally run this race – so I’m definitely looking forward to having nothing looming on the calendar for a while.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any more places to go; it’s just that I’m going to take my time in getting there.