[First Published in 2013]
I first heard of Western States about 3 or 4 years ago, around the time I started running races. It seemed crazy. Since then the race has assumed an almost mythical status in my mind. So when I qualified for it, I figured, “I probably won’t get in, but why not try?” On the day of the lottery I kept checking to see if they posted anything yet–suspense was building–then when I heard that my name was drawn a surge of excitement/fear/panic/elation all rushed upon me. “Am I ready for this?” “Can I do it?” “Is it going to hurt?”
I signed up for 2 other races to gear up for States. Grizzly Peak 50k (coastal trail runs) and Bishop 100k. After getting over a recurring ankle-sprain, my training for the 50k went wonderful, and I ran a really great race. But I think I got a bit cocky, which prepared the way for a bit of humbling. I tried to jump back into training just a few days after the race and soon my hip and knee were both hurting, especially my hip. This led to a frustrating phase of resting/stretching/rolling and very little running, right when I should have been doing my hardest training for Bishop. Although I knew my training was not what it should have been, I started the Bishop 100k hard (I had never done this distance before), trying to keep with the leaders…and I blew up…about mile 40. I underestimated the course and the distance, and I overestimated my fitness. I still finished, but it was not pleasant, and I ended up getting passed by several people those last miles.
My experience at the Bishop 100k factored in huge at Western States. I planned to start mid-pack, and not even let myself see the leaders, then get stuck behind a conga line of people to force me to go out slow. It has been often said, “the race doesn’t really start until Foresthill,” so I planned to play it pretty chill until then. Plus, the main thing I wanted to do was enjoy the race, run with my pacers, and finish–ideally under 24 hours.
Everything went according to plan. I hung out with Mark and Yusef in the middle of the crowd until the race started. I did pass a few people on the first climb, but I was taking it slow and feeling good. I ran into Steve Holman, the one other person I knew running the race that day. Among other things about the race, he told me that on the next downhill they strongly discourage passing, since it is such a narrow trail and pretty difficult to pass. We talked for a while and ran/hiked together until the top of the escarpment.
It was beautiful up there. The sun was rising, the weather was clear, the wind calm. A fog layer rested below in the distance over Lake Tahoe.
Going down the backside I was pretty shocked by the terrain. It was much rockier and wetter than I imaged. I started getting a blister on my left foot and, in general, the rocks felt pretty painful through my shoes. I started really hoping that Yusef and Mark would make it to Duncan Canyon so I could change shoes/socks. Even when I got there I was still debating, since I knew I would lose a lot of time, but I thought it was worth it. I immediately was happy with my choice. The new shoes felt much better and the blister didn’t feel any worse for the whole race.
Heading up to Robinson Flat was very familiar territory, since I had gone up there the weekend before to do some trail work. It was while doing that trail work that I received probably the most helpful advice. I asked a few race veterans if they had any suggestions for a first-timer. And every one of them said: “It’s gonna be hot” and they gave various strategies for managing the heat: “Drench yourself in EVERY stream you pass,” “put ice on your head,” “put ice on your neck,” “bring a scarf.” A few days before this, I happened to be working at the expo for the SF Marathon, and went around to every booth getting as much free stuff as I possibly could =). At the Merrell booth they were giving away a free scarf/beaning thing for everybody who tried to do pull-ups for their contest. So I knocked out a few reps and collected my scarf thing, which eventually inspired my ice-hat plan: I tied a knot in one end and would fill it with ice at every hot aid station, put it on my head like a beanie, and then put my visor over this to keep it firmly in place. It worked wonders. The heat never really got to me at all.
See picture of me in my ice-hat.
After coming down out of Robinson flat, I started talking to a guy named Miguel from Texas. He was a young guy, pretty new to racing Ultras, and it was also his first time running Western States. It was great talking to him and all, but I’ve never quite figured out a graceful way to say, “um…it was great talking to you, but I wanna run faster, k, bye!” so I just started running ahead a bit, and we parted ways. Was glad to see he finished the race and got under 24 hours like he was hoping for!
After Dusty Corners the race drops down onto some nice rolling single-track. It was here that I really started passing a lot of people. I was feeling good and loving the trails and views, and it seemed like some people really started hitting a wall here. From Dusty Corners to Foresthill I moved up 50 places! I chalk it up to the ice-hat. That thing was amazing. The scalp burns for a bit at first, but then it goes numb, and it’s wonderful!
At the Last Chance aid station, a volunteer told me, “downhill for the next two miles, and then a really steep uphill,” and I said, “sounds good, I’m in the mood to hike up a hill.” She looked back at me like I obviously didn’t know what I was in for. It’s true, this was one of the tougher hills of the course. Going down, there were some pretty steep switchbacks, and I was trying to go slow, to save my quads. Crossing over the bridge, I saw some guys who decided to go down and take a swim…I don’t blame them. Coming back up was a pretty steady hike, but my legs were feeling really strong still at this point, I just wanted to keep my heart-rate slow and not exert myself too much. Passed a lot of people on the climb, including several guys who were stopped completely, either hurt or couldn’t take the heat. Loving that ice-hat.
Between this point and Foresthill school I don’t remember too much. I was feeling pretty good, continuing to move, continuing to try to preserve myself. Shortly before Foresthill my left knee started hurting pretty bad, and I was worried that if it got much worse it might put me out of the race. This was where I started praying. My pacers were coming up soon, and it would have really sucked if my knee pain kept me from running with them! I experimented stretching, massaging, and with a little different running form to try to make the knee pain go away. Through trial and error I realized that if I just shift my weight forward a little (where I’m bent a little forward at the waist and feel like I’m gonna fall over the front of my feet) then the knee pain would go away! Pretty cool.
The way they operate the aid stations at western states is a thing of beauty. If businesses want to learn excellent customer service, they should come study the western states volunteers. Seriously. When you come into an aid station they have a whole group of people waiting in a line to serve runners coming in, and one volunteer takes charge of you and gets everything you need. So when I came into Foresthill I was so occupied with answering the volunteer’s questions, that I was kind of shocked to turn around and see my mom and friends standing there waving at me. It was nice to see everybody!
Starting to run with Yusef, I still felt great. We were running along and talking, and then all of a sudden we came upon a tiny aid station perched on the side of a hill. This was the first of some strange/funny/surreal aid stations. I think this was mainly because it was getting dark, and everything started to take on this other-worldly character. Many of the aid stations have glow-sticks and christmas lights lining your path as you come in, and other fun night-time decorations.
I think it was peachstone was where they said “3 minutes until the 24 hour cutoff.” And I freaked out. So did some others who were there (a woman dropped her flashlight and started cussing angrily, but wouldn’t go back to pick it up). I had thought I was running with a nice healthy margin of finishing in 24 hours, and now I find out that I’m gonna be cutting it close?! I started running with a new intensity. It was here that I started losing the mental energy to engage in conversation with Yusef. He made a few indirect jokes like “wanna go out and get some suds tomorrow night” and even normally it would have taken me awhile to understand suds as slang for beer… and then later he tried to make some joke about the guy ahead or something? I don’t know, I don’t have any clue what he was referring to. So I said, “Yusef, I can only understand simple, straightforward statements right now.” After running for maybe 5-6 miles at that intensity, I came to a point where I realized it was really not sustainable (we were about 25 miles from the end).
Coming to the river crossing, I was feeling a bit dazed. As I weighed in, I could hear Yusef telling my mom, Allie, and Tammie that I was having a hard time mentally, and that I was having trouble understanding things that aren’t direct, etc. So then when me and Allie were starting to head down into the river, she was saying things like, “Ok, we’re just going to go down these steps and go through the river. I’m just going to say really simple things.” I felt a little frustrated, since she was talking to me like a child, but I knew it was well-intentioned. And to be honest, I didn’t feel like mustering the energy to explain things at that point, nor could I really formulate the words to say…so I probably wasn’t actually doing that well.
The river was cold–shocking–after running in the heat for so long. It was a very strange experience: up to my stomach in cold water, stepping over big stones, my headlamp dangling from my hand and dragging through the water. I think there were glow-sticks along the rope too.
Once out of the river and heading up the other side, I started feeling better pretty fast. The climb was good for me. I was then able to explain to Allie that we could talk like normal people.
Leaving the next aid station with Andrew, a volunteer said, “the next 10 miles are really runable,” which was totally true after the first mile, but yeah, the first mile was a rocky downhill. But after that, the rollers felt pretty good, except that 5.2 miles didn’t come soon enough…it just seemed to take FOREVER!!!! This is where my willpower started to get tested. I would think, “just 5 miles til the next aid” and then when I was thinking we just HAD to be almost there, Andrew would tell me, “we’ve gone just about 3 miles.” ONLY 3 MILES!!!!
Auburn lakes trails had a weigh in and they told me to drink less water because I was gaining weight. But I figured, if it’s working for me so far, I don’t want to change up too much, so I just backed off on the fluids a little. Again, things really started to feel tedious. Just a lot of winding trails through empty darkness, and then a little hill would come and and sap my motivation completely. I think I was really struggling for a positive outlook at this point. I tried to imagine floating along the trail, like it wasn’t actually my legs carrying me along but something else… will, energy, spirit? Tried to just find a groove. Then I heard something, off in the distance, is that music? a woman singing? I saw a light ahead through the trees, far off in the distance. We would take a corner and it would disappear, then take another turn and I would see it again. Sure enough, it was a woman singing. She was calling me. We were almost at the light now. We came to a hill. At the top of the hill–bright light–with people standing there, nothing but silhouettes beckoning me forward. At the top of the hill I entered a very different world from the dark meandering trail I had come from. This was the Browns Bar aid station. They had brought in huge speakers and were piping loud music through the night, signalling the weary travelers in from their journey.
Next, there was a nice downhill, we got to some dirt roads, then…there was uphill. I was not feeling nearly as strong as 15 miles back. It wasn’t so much tedious here as just tiring. I think Andrew was struggling to come up with ways to motivate me. Poor guy.
At the next aid station, Elaine, Dave, and Annie were there to welcome us. I think more than anything the fact that I was switching to the second to last pacer really helped me to taste the end. I also dropped off my waist pack with my second water bottle, and just used my handheld, so that felt liberating. Heading up that hill with Dave I felt new energy. The moon and the stars and the trees were so nice. I passed a few people, and Dave would say, “Good pace, keep it up, you totally left those guys behind.” The downhill turned out to be gradual and really nice to run on. Dave kept chatting about whatever came to his mind (netflix, marriage, camping), which was good because it distracted from what I was doing and feeling at the moment.
It was SO NICE to get to no hands bridge: to know I had 3-point-something miles to the finish, and I had 2 hours left to make it under 24, I was going to be running with Tammie, and everybody would join me for the last mile! One thing that sapped my mental energy here was that I was expecting the hill to come right after the bridge, that’s what I remembered anyway. But it actually doesn’t come for over a mile. So I was looking forward to doing some hiking up a steep hill (ahh…walking), but it kept on staying flat, so I had to run! Tammie did a really great job of encouraging me. But I really wanted to walk…
The hill did eventually come, and I got to walk. At the top, I heard Eric say, “we have signs!!!” and I saw them put up the signs over the railing as I came. It was really funny. Then everybody started walking/jogging along with me (Eric, Jen, Allie, Annie, Andrew, Dave, Ken, Matt, and Tammie). Eric and Jen would run ahead and take pictures or stand on either side and hold up signs as we came past again. I really wanted to walk, but I felt like I had to keep running as much as possible so that everybody could run with me =). I didn’t want to let them walk, after all. As we came near the high school, Dave said, “you see the stadium lights!” The end is in sight! Heading onto the track, Andrew said, “the final 200 meter sprint!” and I kicked it into high gear for a blazing finish! (looking at the video, “high gear” looks very much like a slow trot, but I felt like I was flying!).
Crossing the finish line, Tim Twietmeyer handed me my medal, I weighed in real quick, then went over to everybody waiting for me. It felt really good to stand still and know I was done my run for the day, and in under 23 hours! An hour faster than my goal!
What an amazing experience it was–pushing my body further than it has ever gone, getting to experience such beautiful sights, talking to great people, running with friends….man…
I think much more valuable than miles accumulated or races run are the people whom I have shared the trail with. I feel happy with the accomplishment of running 100 miles, but even more so I feel overwhelmingly rich in friends, family, and community. Love y’all. lots.