Thursday, July 3, 2014

Western States 100, June 28-29, 2014

26 hours, 38 minutes, 44 seconds.  I finished.  With a time nearly 5 hours worse than my "best" goal, and almost 3 away from silver buckle pace, I would normally be crushed. But I am strangely elated and satisfied with this time because I FINISHED!  And how I did it.  I am going to stay away from a blow by blow account of the course and my progression through the race.  Hundreds of people have written detailed reports on running WS100, I don't need to rehash all that here.  But I do want to touch on a number of vignettes from within the race.


 OK, so you can believe the hype.  Squaw Valley and everything in and around it is a beautiful as they say.  Patrick, Andy and I stayed in Scott's wonderful house, we had our own suite in the basement from which to launch our running endeavor.  
The entire 1960 Winter Olympics took place here and the residual facilities are still self evident.  The valley is beautiful with mountains and ski lifts rising on all sides.  The village has several good restaurants and bars which we took advantage of.
The pre-race organization is immense.   There were various race-related events and meetings scheduled all day Wednesday, Thursday & Friday.  The three of us submitted to EKG exams on Thursday, I wore a heart monitor during the race (it fell off after 20 miles) and I had another EKG within minutes of finishing the race as part of running research WS supports.  Friday, they crowded over 1,000 runners and crew into a conference room for instructions, discussions on trail maintenance after last year's huge fire, and to introduce the pre-race favorites.  As they brought the top 10 men to the front, Andy leaned into me and whispered, "You are going to beat at least one of these guys."  I gave him a quizzical look and he went on, "At least one of them will race hard and drop, you will beat that one."  We chuckled over that together.  I laughed again two days later when he told me the legendary Karl Metzler was a DNF, and I had indeed finished ahead of one of the favorites, and in the case of Karl, one of the greatest ultrarunners ever.

Maybe the best part of the pre-race routine is just the camaraderie of runner, crew, and pacers during the journey.  For two days, we three joked around, toured the area (Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay in particular are drop dead gorgeous),
 and ate.  And we lounged around.  A lot.  Back home, real life would never allow me that measure of relaxation.  I napped, we watched the World Cup, I napped in the sun, I read everything I could about the area, I watched the race flyover on Google Earth repeatedly, and I squeezed in more nap time.  I did everything I could to remain calm and relaxed.  The closer the race start approached, the more it consumed my thoughts, especially as well wishes came pouring in through Facebook, email & texts.  I was overwhelmed by the volume and was pretty keyed up by Friday night.

 The Race

I felt like I did everything right coming into Western States.  I dieted for months, trying to keep my weight down.  I did plenty of miles of training, but didn't overdo it. I got in my mountain training by spending time at our place in the NC mountains, as well as running the first 65 miles of Cruel Jewel in May.  I did tire pulls, pulling a miserably heavy tire up and over the Gunn Hwy overpass repeatedly every Monday.  Each Wednesday, I went to the gym and did deep squats, calf raises and leg raises for strength.  I did heat training with at least one mid-day run in the sun every week wearing multiple shirts, long sleeves and a thermal cap in 90 degree heat.  My last two 15 milers at Hole In The Fence I wore a long sleeve the whole way round, determined to acclimate to the heat I would face in the canyons. 

The one thing I neglected was altitude training.  I knew the first half of the race was at higher elevations.  But I've run and hiked out west on a number of occasions, never having a breathing issue, even going as high as 13,000 feet.  I knew there was little I could do on the east coast anyway, but in retrospect wished I had worked something out.  Doing 10-15 miles on a training run is much different than racing between 5,000 and 8,500 feet for 38 miles, and then still having a 100K to go once the race dropped below 5,000 feet.  I wasn't 5 minutes into the race before my labored breathing began.  The first 3.5 miles is a 2,500 foot climb to Emmigrant Pass and I struggled the whole way up. 

I spent those first 38 miles just bleeding time against my goal pace.  No matter how hard I pressed, I couldn't keep the pace I needed.  My legs felt strong, on downhills and uphills.  I just couldn't suck in enough oxygen.  I was light headed that entire first 8 hours.  If I ran too fast, I was downright dizzy.  I had trouble remembering things, especially keeping track of salt pills.  Once the race dropped below 5,000 feet just past Dusty Corners, my head cleared up.  But the damage was done, I had built up a big oxygen deficit in my blood stream that would not correct itself without hours, if anot a full day of rest.  Every uphill was agony, my breathing would be out of control within 100 feet of climbing.  I love to climb.  I have taken great pride in building that as a running strength and passing people on uphills.  But it wasn't to be so for WS.  I bent over and kissed my knees about 500 times, losing precious time throughout. The difference between a sub-24 hour silver buckle and 26:38:44 can be explained right there.  I need altitude acclimation before I come back to WS or try a Leadville or Wasatch Front.

Outside of the breathing thing, I had fun!  I was sorely disappointed when I knew sub-24 wasn't going to happen.  Patrick began pacing me from Forresthill and we pushed the pace hard to catch up.  But it only took a few miles for him to see my breathing wasn't going to le tit happen.  I apologized to him and Any repeatedly.   But my head never went south, which has happened in other races.  No temper tantrums, no sour outlook.  I joked at every aid station, and tried to compliment every volunteer I saw all day.  Even when I felt terrible, I tried to smile at everyone around me.  I genuinely enjoyed the experience.  Several of the views  were breathtaking.   The views from the top of Emmigrant Pass and later looking west towards Auburn from the ridgeline just pass Michigan Bluff were spectacular.  Those panoramas alone made the race worth the effort.  And I was very pleased that the heat (we had good weather, it never got super hot) never bothered me, and my legs felt strong all day.

The organization of the race is amazing.  It may be an expensive entry fee, but they spend the money well.  Every aid station was well stocked and well run.  They checked your number coming in and going out of every station (I took great delight in announcing myself as "upside down 69" all day).  I was met by a greeter at every aid station who followed me all the way through making sure I had everything I needed and everything was OK before I left.  There were medical checks and weigh-ins at 8 different aid stations.  But they were never looking to pull you, it was always about making sure you had what you needed to keep going.  They WANTED everyone to finish.  At Rucky Chuck Far when I lingered a few moments too long talking to Andy, the aid station captain came over to say I looked way too good to be sitting and told me get the hell out of his aid station.  Now. 
I did have one really low point at Auburn Lake Trails at mile 85.  I was feeling low on sugar coming into the aid station and told Patrick I needed to sit and eat for a few minutes.  The moment I sat down I began to feel woozy, my head was swimming.  I tried to signal to Patrick I needed extra time without letting the aid station volunteer know I was struggling.  Patrick distracted her and I stuffed my face with chicken soup for 10+ minutes.  200 yards into the woods I had a coughing fit that turned into explosive vomiting.  For the next 60 seconds I convulsed and emptied everything in my stomach.  I looked at Patrick knowing I'd had a nasty little stretch.  The aid station was so close behind us I could still hear it.  Instead, I turned and bolted down the trail.  I ran almost continuously the next 4 miles to Brown's Bar, putting distance between myself and a moment of weakness.  After that, we just progressed steadily towards the finish.

The last few miles were the high point of my running career.  I've boasted recently that I have been lucky enough to win 4 ultra races, two just in the last 6 months.  But this mediocre finish in the middle of the pack beat all of those wins.  I was finishing the Superbowl of ultrarunning.  The only thing that had gone wrong was largely out of my control and I had already reconciled myself to it.  Andy met us at Robie Point and I was finishing the last mile with my best friends flanking me.  I told them I was not going to sprint the finish, but when Placer High School swung into view, I could not help myself.   I hit the track in full stride (or my best fascimile thereof with 100 hard miles already completed) and quickly remembered I couldn't breath at that pace.  But by now, I could hear the announcer calling my name and people beginning to clap, there was no way I could slow down now.  I had tunnel vision coming down the last straightaway and the world was going gray as I crossed the finish line.  I accepted the medal and immediately looked for a chair to recover.

Three days later, I am still euphoric.  I didn't get the coveted silver buckle, but I have worn my bronze buckle everywhere since.  And I will go back.  There are other races to run, other distances to conquer.  But my name will go into the lottery this fall, and every year until I get back in.  I will break 24 hours.