Western States 2013.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller
With three years of build up to being on the list of runners for the Western States Endurance Run, it was hard not to be thrilled to head to Squaw Valley. The starting line has been engrained in my mind for years ever since I saw this video, which was the video that really got me in to trail/ultrarunning. I never thought I would ever run a 100-miler, much less be at Western States, the event about which I had read and heard so much. Yet here I stood at the threshold of another incredible experience at the most prestigious event.
The day before registration, a group of runners, their families and crew gather to hike the climb up the Escarpment. I was thrilled to get my first taste of the course since I had not made the trip down for the course preview runs. The day was warm but not the scorching heat that we had been told awaited us race day. It was a great hike up getting to see all the way to Lake Tahoe and having good chats with others regarding my race strategy. Atop the Escarpment we gathered to remember. We gave silence to runners lost over the last year, for Boston, and stories were shared. We remembered the history of the trail and this race.
The anticipation and excitement continued to build as registration day hit. Everyone was now in town and it was fantastic to see everyone in this place all bustling with ultra energy. I handed over my drop bags, which is always relieving, and then went for the medical check-in and swag pick-up. As soon as the yellow band was around my wrist the reality hit that I was doing another 100-miler. The questions began swirling in my head. Was I really ready? Could I really do what I was hoping? Would this hurt as bad as I remember?
The biggest talk before the race was around the weather. It was going to be a hot year. It ended up being the 2nd hottest year in the race’s 40 year history! There were multiple instances where advice was given either from veteran runners or medical staff for us to wear white. Those of you that know me know that I do not own white. Finally, with help from Brad, I decided to go buy a white shirt. There is one store suitable for this in Squaw Valley, a North Face store. Apparently a lot of people needed a white shirt because there were many of us in the same shirt at the start line.
Before the race begins, early in the dark still of the morning, a fire pit roars near the start line. All the runners are getting final medical check-ins and race bibs. Standing at the start of a 100-miler is one of my favorite places ever. Everyone is excited and nervous, regardless if they are running or not. Everyone stands as equals, ready to take on whatever the day will bring. I had my plan and I was ready to see what the day would hold and go from there.
Start to Robinson Flat (~mile 30)
It was incredible ascending the road to the Escarpment. I felt like I did well and made good time all while keeping in a really low gear. After that climb the trail becomes blastingly fast. I took a short moment to take in the sun rising over Lake Tahoe and then set out to do what I came for…run fast, but smart. About 45 minutes into this section I began having similar altitude symptoms as I did at Wasatch. This was perplexing since the course tops out at around 8500ft and I thought I would be fine. My tightened core and perpetually dry mouth suggested otherwise. Since I knew the course eventually descends quite dramatically I dropped in to a lower gear knowing I was still in good shape. I had been running with Nicola, one of my friends and training buddies in Vancouver, but she pounced on the course and I saw her fly off with the rest of the top ladies.
I nestled in to a nice easy groove in hopes the altitude would soon release me from its grip. As I rolled in to Red Star Ridge (mile 16) I took some time to removed some rocks from my shoes, grabbed my ipod and off I went down a great piece of trail, which was quickly escalating in temperature. There was a creek at the bottom and I laid down in it to try to keep cool. I came in to the Robinson Flat AS a mere 10 minutes off my ‘fast’ schedule and I was still feeling underworked. At the weigh-in I was still within 3% of my starting weight. I finally got to see Brad (and the massive crowd of cheering people), refueled and off I went. About 10 minutes later I realized I had forgotten my handheld bottle which I was using to douse my face when it felt like I was breathing in front of a hair dryer. I took advice I had heard earlier in the week and didn’t panic, even though I was facing a 6 mile section on completely exposed trail.
Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff (~mile 55)
Since I had no way of externally cooling myself down, I took a quick assessment of the time and told myself I would slowly run/fast walk this section in fear of getting too dehydrated. It was a tough mental blow but I was nervous of the effects blasting this section would cause me later on in the day. In the last few miles before the Miller’s Defeat AS (mile 35) a fellow runner informed me that I could ask the volunteers if anyone had a spare handheld. So I did. One of the volunteers, Steve, ran out to his car to get his for me and hand it over with the caveat that I would finish. I promised him I would and thanked him profusely!
Because the heat was continuing to increase, my core was still not loosening up. Thankfully the elevation was dropping and I was able to get rid of the cotton mouth. However, the heat was making it difficult to take solid foods and gels. I stuck with my gel slurry, Sprite, and water. I downed as much as I could at the aid station and darted off towards Last Chance and the canyons. This section of trail was incredibly fun. I decided it was time to stretch my legs out and take it pretty fast. I passed a lot of people. Honestly, I was probably running a lot faster than I should have but (1) I was in the shade finally and (2) I had a bottle full of ice water.
A little more than a quarter mile from the Last Chance AS I stopped to pee to make room for the upcoming extra liquid calorie intake and I saw blood. Yes, I was pissing blood and freaking out. I could not understand how because I thought this happened when people were way dehydrated or in pretty bad shape. I felt phenomenal and still well within 3% of my starting weight. I walked the rest of the way to the aid station trying to calm myself down. I decided that I would sit in the shade for no less than 20 minutes after being doused with ice water. I would take time to eat some solid food in my cooled down state and let it settle. The aid station looked like a scene from a war zone. People strewn about, vomiting everywhere or passed out. I tucked myself away in a far corner, alone in the shade. As I was sitting the medical crews that were running from aid station to aid station to check on people in the course arrived.
I waved down the medical staff and chatted with them a bit about what had just happened. They told me that I was the most coherent person they had spoken with in hours and felt I was fine, especially with my weigh-ins. One of the guys told me that having blood in my urine was fairly normal and more than likely due to running hard on a full bladder. “Well that would definitely make sense,” I thought, but it was still something new and something I did not want to mess with. I would rather not trade in my race bracelet for an ER one and as much as I want to ride in a helicopter, I did not want it to be from the bottom of a canyon in the California wilderness. They told me to keep going, but take it easy and keep drinking and it should clear up soon. I left the aid station, relinquishing my sub-24 hour goal and wondering if I would make it out of the canyons alive.
The canyons were hot. The exact temperature changes with the source but everyone had numbers from 115-120F (~46C). At one of the aid stations I was told their thermometer in the shade was reading 97F. I was trying to think cool thoughts and imagine myself running through snow with every douse of ice water.
The descent from Last Chance ended with a nice long soak in a creek. It was incredible to see so many runners divert off the trail to come get fully submerged in the cool flowing waters for a couple minutes. The climb up to Devils Thumb was actually enjoyable. It was vaguely familiar to a popular hike in Vancouver that I frequent, albeit at significantly lower temperatures. I kept taking my time and trying not to stress out from seeing red earlier.
I eventually got within a mile of Michigan Bluff and I hear “there’s the metal head” from a very familiar voice. It was Dave! Dave?! What’s he doing here? Isn’t he supposed to be getting ready to pace Nicola. On the walk in to Michigan Bluff I was informed that Nicola had dropped. Should I drop too? Maybe. I weighed in, still within 3% of my start weight. I was guided to where Brad (and now Peter, Nicola and Dave) was and I collapsed. The sight of my friends brought out all the emotion I was trying to suppress and I had a good cry for the better part of 10 minutes. Dave tried to loosen up my core and back while Brad worked on restoring my quickly deteriorating mind. I do not know how long I stayed on the ground and then in a chair, but it was significant. I eventually got up and flipped my mental switch: if I couldn’t finish in under 24 hours anymore, I was still going to finish. I came to Western to push myself further, to suffer.
Michigan Bluff to Forest Hill (mile 62)
Over the next 7 miles I mainly focused on reorienting my mind and getting in survival mode to finish out the race regardless of all the emotional turmoil I had just been through. I walked a significant portion of this which was frustrating since it was just a moderately rolling wide dirt road. Thankfully Dave met me at the Bath Road AS and walked me in to Forest Hill with his headlamp as night was suddenly upon me and all my lights were in my bag at Forest Hill. I had not planned on being so far behind schedule.
As I came in to Forest Hill I got to meet Mike, my pacer, for the first time. Even though he knew I was in bad shape he was very positive and ready to get me going towards the finish line. After a little downtime in the grass, it was time to see what gains I could make through the night, hoping the cooler weather would energize me.
“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” — Walter Elliot
Forest Hill to Green Gate (mile 79.8)
It was finally dark but there was not much relief from the heat. While the temperatures had indeed fallen below 100F, it was still near 80F which is hotter than it has gotten in Vancouver in 2013. I never thought I would be dumping ice water on me during the night portion of a mountain run but here I was trying to stay cool as the stars and moon became visible. In comparison, at Wasatch, I was shivering in 3 layers of clothes and 2 pairs of gloves. As I continued to move forward, I began to feel better and better. I was finding myself running more and able to have conversation with Mike, more than the one or two-syllable grunts he got when we were first getting going. I am super thankful I had a pacer with such stellar knowledge of the course. He helped break down the sections in to easily digestible morsels of trail for my legs to devour.
As we made our way down the stairs to the river crossing, the AS volunteers were cheering loudly, already congratulating me as a finisher of Western States. I was quick to be thankful but also had to remind myself I still had another 20 miles to go. If I hit another low, I knew I would not finish.
The river crossing is one of the signature pieces of Western States. It is definitely one of the neatest experiences in any ultra I have done. The rope is dotted with volunteers in wet-suits and sunken glow sticks rest near areas of tricky footing. At one point the river goes from your calves to above your waste in a single step over a large rock. A nice older lady was standing at this spot and I told her “I apologize in advance if I scream in your face.” I turned my head and let out a great “whooooo” as the cold river water rushed all over me.
After crossing I started power hiking up to Green Gate, a 1.8 mile fairly steep dirt road. I passed quite a few people in my eagerness to switch into my fresh socks and shoes Brad had for me at the AS. I made a quick change, then got some fresh batteries from the volutneers for my headlamp and we made our way out. By the time I made it a couple hundred feet to the AS exit, my headlamp was dead. The volunteer had mistakenly given me batteries from the wrong bin. Fresh batteries in, Mike and I made our way, my legs tired but ready to go after the invigorating American River.
Green Gate to Finish (mile 100.2)
The rest of the night section I shuffled and ran where I could. As the sun began to rise over the mountains I was struck with sadness knowing I wanted to be sitting, uncomfortably, at the finish line by now. But that was not my race this day. I came back to the reality of the moment and began to push hard. I was passing lots of people and Mike was giddy exclaiming in the 5 years of him pacing this was the first time he had ever gotten to run these trails. I was finally in full form and we were having great conversation and moving well. As we neared Highway 49, the heat began to creep back. It was just after daybreak and it was already sweltering. At No Hands Bridge I got a nice ice packet to put around my neck for the final climb to Robie Point. Once I hit the road we ran. I am sure it was an awkward slow shuffle jog, but it felt like I was pushing it. Everything hurt. I was getting the deep 100-mile pain I came for, just not the finish time…and that’s ok. I had endured the 2nd hottest Western States in its 40 year history and shown myself I am way tougher than I thought.
The finish of Western States is spectacular. Having spent the majority of the last 28+hrs alone, there were crowds of people and familiar faces all cheering for my approach to the finish.
I crossed the line with great relief to be done. It was a tough day on an otherwise pretty easy course. Afterwards my friends and I sat around waiting for the buckle ceremony and were the delightful recipients of a near endless supply of popsicles and other frozen treats, which we gobbled up since it was well over 100F!
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” — Thomas Paine
Maybe the next time I am fortunate enough to be selected to run, I will have a much cooler year and be able to do what I feel I am capable of on this course. Until then I will take away the immense gratitude for the experience I did have, the people I got to share it with, and the lessons I learned both about myself and 100-milers.
Keep moving. No matter how slowly.