Sunday, July 3, 2016

Western States / Yosemite 2016

Where do I start with the superlatives? This was simply one of my best running trips ever, and I wasn't even entered into a race.

The plan for the week was to help Andy Mathews complete his third Western States 100. It is such a hard race to get into (I lost the WSER lottery for the 7th consecutive year) and for Andy this might be his last hurrah at the granddaddy of all hundred milers. Not the toughest by far, not the biggest, and depending on who you talk to, not the best. But this is the original hundred-mile foot race ever, our Boston Marathon of ultras, and a really big deal. I flew in late Thursday night a day after Andy, and the rest of his crew including Amy Mathews, Luis Barrios, and Samantha Reilly had already arrived in Olympic Valley and the festivities began for me Friday morning.

I had tried to organize a group run to the top of Emmigrant Pass, but it turns out Altra sponsors a 6K along the same route, so we entered the free race and joined the crowd headed to the top at 10 AM. Rob Tucker, Luis, Sam, and I all stayed roughly within sight of each other on the 3+ mile 2,100’ constant ascent. Within minutes, I was quickly reminded of the challenge of running at altitude as my heart began to pound in my ears and my lungs burned. I settled in soon though and we trudged to the finish where the 4 of us rejoined to complete the remaining climb to the summit. The 360-degree vista at the top of the pass is worth every moment of lactic burn on the way up. To the east, there are great views of the range of mountains that make up the Tahoe Rim, and a good portion of the crystalline blue waters of Lake Tahoe itself. To the west, the ridge lines of the Sierra Nevada range cascade down and away, and I imagined we could see the area of the finish line for WSER some 96 non-linear miles away.

From there, Rob, Sam, and I descended into the beautiful backcountry on the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple of wonderful miles on perfect single track before returning to plummet 2,500 feet back into Olympic Village. For a couple of Floridians, running in the snow in late June was a rare treat. At the bottom, Andy and Amy already had a table for us at the Fireside Grill for lunch. Rob Tucker was here this year to pace his running coach, Ian Sharman, the former world-record holder at the hundred-mile distance. Ian, with 6 consecutive WSER top-10 finishes was here to challenge for the victory a 7th time. Rob, Ian, and his wife, Amy joined us for lunch, and we privately reveled in sharing our repast with running royalty. We idled the afternoon away with a trip to the Truckee River for an "ice" bath of sorts, back to the house and into the hot tub, and then a quiet dinner and early bedtime as we all battled nerves going into the big race day.  I would be remiss if I did not stop here and thank Scott Roberds once again for his tremendous generosity, not just this year but in 2014 as well.  Being welcomed into his house as race HQ has been a great resource to make these trips successful.

The buzz at the start of WSER is something unique, the anticipation and excitement hangs in the air around you as runners make their last minute preparations. Minutes before the start, Andy pulled his group around him, choking with emotion, and shared words of thanks and hope with us that I will not share here.  I don't think I know anyone personally who has given as much to the sport of ultrarunning as he has. With 26 Hundred-mile finishes including the coveted sub-24 hour silver buckle at WSER, and being the 2006 Florida Ultrarunner of the Year, he is an accomplished athlete.  As race director for numerous races at our Florida treasure called Croom, he has put on numerous quality events to an ever growing field of contestants. As one of the lightning rod personalities in FUR, he is a magnet attracting all those new people, and generally the center of every laughing conversation at most finish lines. There are no ads or postings to be seen' but Andy has probably coached and counseled as many ultrarunners as anyone, including me when I first started and ever since. I badly wanted to see this go well for him. Andy had a smart, conservative game plan to finish the race, and I never doubted he would do it.

The start itself was difficult for me in a way I did not anticipate. This day was all about Andy, and I was committed to doing everything I could for him to succeed. But as we gathered off to the side as the clock wound down, I was overcome with jealousy. Not of Andy, but of the other 369 runners there instead of me. I ran the 2014 edition, and desperately want to get back in again. And again. After the shotgun start, I had to step off to the side, away from our group, silently fuming, staring at the runners moving up the slope, willing Andy to the top of that first grueling climb, and re-committing myself (for about the 50th time) to get back here with my own race bib.

Andy's plan was for our first stop with him to be at Robinson Flats, 29.7 miles into the race. Those first 30 miles are (to me) the prettiest and the toughest. We arrived 3 full hours before Andy's expected arrival. Knowing one of the best views on the course was just down the trail, I took Luis and Sam on a 5-mile jaunt to a panoramic view of the mountains as we did long, slow switchbacks down the slope. On our return, we had to step off the trail every few minutes as the race leaders came by. We saw our new friend Ian Sharman looking a bit tired, but running strong in 10th.

We scouted out a spot on the far side of this large aid station where we would be able to spot Andy coming in. We planned to station a couple of us there so when Andy arrived, one of us could tell him where we were set up and ask what he needed, while another raced to our spot along the chute to help Amy be ready for his arrival. About 30 minutes before Andy's fastest expected arrival, we left Amy, as crew chief, at our spot and the other 3 of us took up watch on the far side. The next several hours were agonizing. We nervously bantered, all increasingly worried as his expected arrival time came and went.  I kept redoing the math on what his overall pace might now be.  I can't imagine Amy's nerves as she sat alone, several hundred yards away and out of sight, waiting on her husband. The once bustling and wildly energetic aid station with hundreds of volunteers and spectators cheering and clapping, grew increasingly quiet as most of the runners had passed through. Then the first air horn sounded 3 times, the 30-minute warning cutoff. Be through this aid station in 30 minutes or be pulled from the race. No excuses, no exceptions. The rocks and pine cones I had been idly throwing at nearby trees were landing with increasing force. The horn soon blew twice and our stomachs writhed. When the air horn blew once, we just stared at each other in stony silence. With minutes left, Luis and Sam dejectedly returned to Amy to help pack up our mini aid station. I trotted down the trail in reverse to go find my friend.

Less than a half mile into my trot, the final long air horn blast, signaling the cutoff and end of the race for Andy and others still coming in, hit me like a gut punch. Seconds later, I spotted Andy struggling up a steep incline towards me. He looked awful. We've shared many tough practice runs where we looked and felt like complete shit. But this is as bad as I had ever seen him. Yet the first words out his mouth as he saw me were, "Was that the 10-minute warning or the final horn?" As bad as he looked and must have felt, he was ready to sprint through the aid station and continue the race if there was time remaining.  I simply told him, "No, that was it" and moved in behind him, hand on his back to help push him up the hill as my assistance was no longer restricted.

I said little on the short return, struggling for the right words as Andy explained it simply hadn't been his day. He had struggled mightily on the uphills and just couldn't get a rhythm that allowed him to make up time on the cut offs. As we entered Robinson Flats, I was very thankful for Amy as she greeted him with a quiet, supportive calm I had no chance of mustering. The long drive back to Olympic Valley was difficult as everyone struggled with their emotions. Andy repeatedly tried apologizing to us, and we all insisted he had let no one down. But everyone's emotions were raw, and the remainder of our stay seemed much less lustrous with Andy's disappointing outcome.  After everyone had showered, eaten, and we had begun to lubricate, I proposed an idea to the group:  We not only had an extra day in our agenda due to the DNF, we also weren't worn out from spending 30+ hours on the course.  Let's use that extra time and energy to make a side trip to Yosemite Valley while we are here.  To my pleasant surprise, everyone in the group was immediately all in.

Sunday, we awoke not too early and headed over to the north end of Lake Tahoe to run on the Tahoe Rim Trail.  I am signed up to race the Tahoe 200 in September, and this was a chance to get acquainted with parts of the course.  Andy even joined us, with the intent of walking behind us while we ran.  We started at a place called Brockway and headed west towards Watson Lake.  This section of the course is pretty consistently up and down, but without anything super steep, and stays between 7,000 – 8,000 feet of elevation.  We were frequently treated to breathtaking views of the length of Lake Tahoe shining brightly blue below us. 

The trail rolled through heavy coniferous forest, interspersed with alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. 

As we would do all week, the group stayed roughly together, the faster runners backtracking to keep from losing track of the others.  We talked consistently during every run, vacillating from normal running banter, to exclamations of awe at the beauty of our surroundings, to serious life conversations, and back to the banter again. Not to be forgotten was Luis' excellent timing from the bushes off trail just as I told Amy & Sam the field we were in was great territory to spot a bear. Luis’ quick and unexpected shout from the bushes resulted in Sam jumping nearly out of her shoes.  After 7 miles we passed by Watson Lake

and soon thereafter reached our turnaround point where we sat and took in the 180-degree view of Lake Tahoe far below.  

We had just started back when Andy picked us up, having kept us with nearly the whole way.  Andy felt stronger and better than he had just the day before and was running well.  If WSER had started on Sunday instead of Saturday, he may well have been taking a buckle home.  Strangely, the events still taking place at the finish line in Auburn, roughly 100 miles west of us had taken a back seat to our new focus.  WSER was over for our group and we embraced the new opportunities presented.  The return trip back to the car had a long uphill climb at the end and we were all spent upon finishing.  After 15 miles on the course, I felt a little intimidated for the upcoming race, knowing I am far from being ready.  We drove straight down to the lake, looking for a very late lunch.  Our first stop was at a restaurant not quite open for business yet, but did give a couple of us a chance to jump into the lake.   Finally, we found a wonderful place right on the water, soaking up the views yet again.

Monday is when things really got interesting.  Andy dropped the 4 of us in Tahoe City on the west shore of the lake where we picked up another section of the TRT.  This run turned out to be nothing short of glorious.  After a slow steep start, we were once again treated to frequent views of the lake and then mountains beyond, then plunging back into deep emerald forests of towering spruces, pines, and firs. We only realized afterwards we had run the uphill sections nearly as consistently as the downhills.  The 10+ miles of beautiful single track here gave me renewed confidence for September.

While we ran, Andy went into Reno to get us a larger rental vehicle for the long drives ahead of us.  Our under-powered Dodge Grand Caravan minivan soon was named the “Silver Streak” in honor of its begrudging efforts to climb the numerous mountain passes on our way to Yosemite.  We drove around the east and south sides of Tahoe, stopping at the wondrous Emerald Bay along the way. 

From there we proceeded south, just west of the Nevada border through a number of mountain ranges, ooh’ing and aah’ing as each new ridge or valley swung into view, and eventually down and around Mono Lake.  There, to our amazement, we saw the remains of a large forest fire where the emergency workers had somehow saved a cluster of buildings from imminent demise, while everything else, in every direction had burned to the ground. 

Finally, we entered Yosemite National Park from the northeast through Tioga Pass.  We spent the next couple hours driving the backcountry of Yosemite between 8,000 and 10,000 feet.  Andy and I were the only ones in the car who eagerly anticipated me playing an audio book, “My First Summer in the Sierra” by John Muir as we drove.  Muir was the principal founder of the Sierra Club, and chiefly responsible for the preservation of Yosemite in a time when natural wonders were frequently considered natural resources for lumber and mining. 

His flowery language soon won over the entire van as we pointed at signs representing places Muir had talked to us about in his book only minutes before.  There was also no shortage of enthusiasm by the group to note how often he used the word ‘erect’.

After a plunging descent to 4,000 feet of elevation we began to enter the middle valley for which Yosemite is so well known for.  We hit each of the big attractions, first stopping to look at El Capitan before a short hike to Bridal Veil Falls. 

From there we drove further back in the park for a slightly longer hike to view Yosemite Falls plunging from 2,700 feet above. 

We took a third longer hike to Mirror Lake and stared up at the imposing cliff face of Half Dome, maybe Yosemite’s most impressive feature. 

Somewhere during the afternoon, Andy turned to us and pronounced this had been “the best DNF ever!”  None of us flew west expecting, nor desiring this outcome.  But Andy had led the way in making the most of what happened.  By now, it was nearly dark, we had hiked 8+ miles after the intense 10-mile morning run and a long day of driving, and the group was spent.  We ate an outstanding dinner at the Lodge restaurant with a prefect view of Yosemite Falls in the darkening gloom. 

Our day was not over.  From Yosemite we had an 80-minute drive to the nearest hotel where we could make reservations at the last minute.  I had found a place called Mountain Lodge which had a picture of a nice pool and plenty of room for 5 people.  When we got to the lodge with the nice pool, the manager gave me directions to where our room actually was, 3 miles down the road.  We turned on to some dark back streets and the group began making references to horror movies and determining which of us would survive the night (Sam was the odds-on favorite to make it to morning).  It turned out to be a dingy little house, which while clean, was nothing that we bargained for.  But much as we had done with the DNF, we made the most of the situation and sat together watching comedy videos on You Tube and telling jokes until we were on the floor laughing.  It wasn’t a great place, but we had a great time. Again.

As if the last several days hadn’t been fantastic, Tuesday topped them all.  We had a leisurely breakfast and headed back towards Yosemite.  As we got back into the outskirts of the park I chose to put on the playlist from Sandra’s and my wedding CD, which is largely movie show tunes.  Listening to Judy Garland sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ followed by Louis Armstrong’s ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ as we turned corners on one gorgeous patch of landscape after another set the mood early.  We passed through a tunnel, and as we listened to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole something told me to stop at the overlook just past the tunnel exit. 

The Tunnel Overlook defies reality.  The 5 of us drifted to the wall and dropped our jaws in amazement.  The entire valley was laid out before us, with El Capitan dominating the left, Half Dome off in the distance ahead, and Bridal Veil Falls on our right.  Sam kept asking, “Is this real?”  Andy and I were near tears as we read a John Muir quote from one of the plaques:

“This grand show is eternal.  It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising.  Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

I’ve been exceptionally lucky to travel to some beautiful places around the world.  But this spot takes the cake.  I did everything I could to commit that scene and that feeling to memory to bring back out in future days when life feels bleak or weary. 

From there we drove down into the valley with the intention of circling right round up the other side to head up into the back country again.  But I couldn’t resist stopping the car at the base of El Capitan for us to get out and stare up at the 3,000 foot wall of granite stone.

We headed uphill through the lower and then upper montane forests headed into Yosemite back country on Route 120.  Amy and I share a love for classical music.  To be clear, I love listening to it, but have no musical talent or training.  Amy is an accomplished musician and bandleader and understands the intricacies of the art we are listening to.  Regardless of the disparity in musical talent, we love the same composers.  So as we drove uphill, I put on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the “Ode to Joy” and then the  magic really began.  It was if our drive had been choreographed.  It seemed that every time the music crescendoed we would turn another corner for a sweeping view that drew exclamations from everyone in the car. 

74 minutes later we pulled over, elated, and parked at a trail head around 8,000 feet and began a hike up towards Cathedral Rock. 

We had a couple of tweaky knees in the group and agreed this would be a hike and not a run.  Except for Luis who was pounding it hard all week preparing for the Vermont 100.  He would run ahead a half mile or more, double back, give us the scoop on what was coming, and then move back ahead again.  We climbed all the way past 9,600 feet until we reached the alpine meadows and a glacial lake below Cathedral Rock.  Andy and I stripped down to running shorts and plunged into the icy waters for a quick swim, and we all enjoyed the warm sun, soaking up the scenery. 

On the way back down, we noticed a storm approaching in the distance, and were soon double-timing it down the mountain to avoid being caught exposed to the rain and lightning.  Once in the van, by Amy’s suggestion, we played Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’.  It started with Mars, Bringer of War which will stir anyone’s soul.  Once again, it seemed our trip had been choreographed as the music complimented the dark clouds and distant lightning strikes that followed us out of Yosemite and back towards the Nevada border and north back to Olympic Valley.

We capped off our trip Wednesday morning with a 5K run up the Truckee River to a small cafĂ© adjacent to the river where we had breakfast, coffee & mimosas.  The return 5K back to the house was considerably slower.  From there it was off to the airport and an end to our trip.

It is hard to sum up a trip like this without getting a bit emotional.  I have come to rely on running as an escape from the pressures of work and life, a way to let off steam, to keep myself sane.  But all too often, travel races have become more an instrument of implementation and not as satisfactory a release:  Get into town, Get ready, Get to the start line, Get to the finish line, Get cleaned up and rested, and then Get home.   This trip was completely different, a special, rejuvenating experience.  We raced, and came up just a bit short; we recovered and ran just as hard, just elsewhere; ate and drank and laughed until our ribs hurt.  I am immensely grateful to have shared it with my good friends Andy, Amy, Luis, and Sam.  Best DNF ever?  No doubt.