Tuesday, July 6, 2010

RR: 2010 Western States 100

Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run
June 26-27, 2010
Auburn, CA - 100.2 Miles
The Finger of God
Driving down past Donner Pass towards the start of The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, I peered up to the sky to something I didn't expect and what I found to be a bit unusual. There was something wrong the the moon. We were supposed to have a full moon for the run. Was it a smudge? Was it a cloud? Am I seeing things before the race even begins? Just then, Bret my crew member and pacer said, "That must be a partial eclipse." I wasn't going crazy after all and instead I realized with a smile on my face that the stars were aligning this morning and what appeared to be a smudge on the moon was perhaps the finger of god himself... or perhaps a sign from someone else watching from above.

I've struggled to get into this race over the last four years. First qualifying in 2006 with a sub 11 hour run of 50 miles in Vermont. I'll openly admit it was that book by "Karno" that had sparked the interest in me to even run 100 miles. I was all ready an ultra-runner when I had run it. It was his descriptions of this race that set my imagination afire. Could I do this? Could I run 100 miles. On the long road to Squaw I'd proven many times that I could.. but could I do it here? This isn't your average Ultra run. It's super-hyped, it's the championship race, it's the big dance, the big show and up until this very moment, standing in a sea of 400+ runners at the base of a mountain, I'm complacent. I'm not excited, I'm not jazzed up.. to be honest I'm a little bit sleepy from a long day of traveling the day before. I'm starting to feel like this ultra-running thing has become my job. What is there to be excited about? I haven't really done the work yet. Some folks say the work comes in the form of your training.. not me.. the work comes into play when you're standing at the time clock ready to punch in for the day.. and give it all you've got. Thats where I am now.

I stand in the cold morning air at the base of Squaw with Sarah and Bret, my faithful crew for this grand adventure. I also stand there with Jeff Genova, Alan Giraldi and Christian Griffith. The clock ticks down and Gordy Ainsleigh takes the microphone. This guy is the whole reason we even run these things. He's tall, lanky.. and looking old. His beard is a bright shade of white and so is his flowing hair. He almost looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. A hush falls over the crowd and he tells us that before us "is the holy grail. Have a great journey." A great journey... so many times in my running life I've heard people tell me to have a great race, break a leg, good luck, etc etc.. but have a great journey. FINALLY someone seems to get it and puts it quite well. Just then, I wait to hear that booming shotgun blast that starts us off. Instead I hear a dud of an air gun go off, hooting and hollering.. and 40 seconds of us walking to the starting line before crossing it. I reach up high and give the time clock a slap as I head out into the morning, immediately climbing uphill... towards the top of Squaw.
As the climb begins up Squaws work road, the sides of the road are lined with spectators for quite a distance. It's really rather exciting. I've never been in a bottle neck like this at the start of an ultra-before though. Seeing all these people is rather different and I have mixed feelings right away. I just want to climb, just to get to work.. but so many runners are playing stop and go to say hi to family and friends...It's like walking down a crowded sidewalk at Disney and you're annoyed by all those Asians who just have to take a photo right then and now. I understand it though, so I just put my head down and bob and weave my way as best I could. About 2 miles into the climb I see Jay Batchen. I wonder where his wife Lisa is after her running of a 50 mile run in all 50 US states in 62 days. She was home with a broken foot. I was sad to hear this but wishing Jay luck none-the-less. Such a friendly guy, smiling, giving me the thumbs up and wishing each other well. I took off ahead of Jay and continued to climb as best I could.

Just past the Escarpment aid stations and near the crest of the ridge, I hear this giant crash! It was a gong. A local runner had carried the huge cymbal up the mountain and continued to play a roll on it for every single runner as we went on by. I stopped for a minute to walk backwards up hill, looking back over Lake Tahoe to see the sun rising over the horizon. It was a stunning view. Not long after I reached the
top of the Escarpment where I looked out over the course. "It's a long way to Auburn" someone expressed, "No shit.. but I'm all ready 4 miles in." I thought back to Karno's book and for the second time in 2 hours, I'm disappointed by what was nothing more then an over embellishment. The view ahead of me was far less spectacular then the view over Tahoe. It was gorgeous none-the-less but I decided that I was glad to have thrown Dean's book out a year ago...

Across The Polar Ice Cap
After cresting the top of Squaw we found ourselves running across large patches of snow and then once we entered the forest, it wasn't patches anymore.. it was just snow. Where there wasn't snow, there was
mud.. lots of mud and running water from snowmelt. It was cold enough at nearly 9,000' to see our breath, frost on the vegetation and the snow to still be stiff from the nights freeze. You could tell who was from the warmer climates, tip toeing their way through the snow, wasting tons of energy and time. And then there are the folks who spend the time trying to avoid the mud and water. I've learned through
my running career that it takes too much time and energy to worry about keeping my feet dry. I knew I had a shoe and sock change coming up at Mile 24. I just needed to get there healthy. Don't get me wrong
though, the snow and mud was tiring itself. I passed a few dozen runners on the snow sections while they danced around it. I loved it, whopped it up, felt like I was right at home. Hell, weather reports
from New Hampshire tell tales of it snowing on the 6000' Mount Washington while I was gone.

I fell once while cruising down a section of snow, landed on my butt and slid downhill a bit. We call this glissading back home, it's fun, sledding without a sled. The southern runners call this "oh shit." I talked with a few folks who knew me, though I'll admit that then and still now I have no clue who they are or were. We talked about Barkley, Ironman tattoos, my tattoo..and the snow. Snow snow snow. It was kind of fun I'll admit. But as soon as we started to get tired of it, we began our long downhill descent along the snow route. No red star ridge, just a long long slog downhill to a road along the reservoir. It's around 9am now, and the sun is exceptionally hot all ready. As I run along this road, I begin to think about how this is harder for me to run. I love ups and downs, I hate pavement, I hate roads. The more hills the merrier. The more flats... torture. As we hit the long road heading towards the reservoir, the sun beats down on us. It feels like its 90 degrees all ready. We run past a variety of campsites. People out cooking breakfast, children playing and getting ready to go for a swim. People rowing boats out of the shallow water into the deep stuff for a morning of fishing. It's really pleasant down here, but tough. I do my best to plod along and then we re-enter the forest.
Giants and matchsticks
As we re-enter the woods and run along the water, I'm stimulated by a visually stunning forest. Sequoia trees tower 100's of feet above, some a good 10 feet across at their base, pinecones bigger than footballs. Redwoods that drop their own softball and bigger sized cones. The reservoir is a clear blue, turquoise and darker. It's a sight to behold and just a wonderful place to run along. The trail is soft from pine needles and other decay. The dirt is soft and starting to turn into a fine dust. I've been running alone for quite a while now. Most of the runners I've met, Team Diablo, don't seem to be very talkative. I start to run through an areas of fresh cut vegetation. Prickly bushes, tons of dust and then.. a barren wasteland. Everywhere I look from one hillside to the next is a smattering of charred trees from old forest fires. Dust plums up from the runners in front of me, dust plumes up from beneath my own feet and it's tough to not breath it in. It's nasty here, and stifling hot. This is Duncan Canyon. I knew just up around the corner I'd finally see my crew. My feet are soaked, but I knew I'm still going to get wet coming up. I knew I'd opt to keep my socks and shoes the same, but I needed most to be cooled down.

From out of the matchstick forest, I saunter up the final hill and into the Duncan Canyon aid station. I feel great except from being hot. My crew is ready, they take my waist back off and simply strap a new one on. I grab some food, they shoves gels into my mouth and give me some boost. I bend over near the buckets and a volunteer sprays me down while another takes a sponge loaded with ice water and squeezes it out over my neck. I am immediately drenched, but cooled. I'm fed and out of the aid station in less than two minutes. It was by far one of the most efficient aid stops I've ever had as I leave with a huge smile on my face. It's off to Robinson Flat.
As I wander down the hill out of Duncan's, I'm feeling a bit slow and sluggish. I knew there was a ton of race left, so I backed off a little bit to give myself some rest. I'd been running full steam since the beginning of the race, eying that silver buckle. At the bottom of the hill is a creek with a rope strung out across it for us to hold onto. As I step into the water I give a little chuckle, knowing that I've swam in rivers deeper, colder and raging more violently without a problem this year all ready.. in true Sherpa Fashion "I don't need no stinking rope." I stand in the stream, soak my hat and try to cool myself off a bit more. The heat is starting to get to me a bit.

Thanks Mrs. Robinson.. for nothing.
I continue to fight along dusty trails, open burned areas, through Sequoia and Redwood Forests all the way back up onto a long ridge and eventually into Robinson Flat. This aid station was an all out cluster
"F" of people. I ran into the aid station to get weighed in. I'm 3 pounds up on my weight. I'm not feeling well at all and somethings gotta give. I stop at the aid station and grab some food and as I begin to walk out, I get lost in a sea of runners crews. I started to have a bit of an anxiety attack, not sure of where the course goes. Thats when I see George V from California. He say's hello and asks me if I have a crew, "No.. where does the damn course go." He points up hill, I say thanks and take off. "Take off" means nothing. It's just words. The course was back into deep deep snows. I'm and down over rotting drifts. The sun's heat had turned the snow into slush. It's hard to get any good footing, it's tiring trying to negotiate. I meet a fellow New Englander, a guy from Connecticut, and we talk for a bit. I even save him from running in the wrong direction at the crest of the hill. After running in the snow, I finally feel a bit better, and take to a long winding downhill like a master. From switchback to switchback I manage to pass a few runners and put a little distance on others. The only downside is that this is another old burned area and the sun is just pounding down on us. My legs feel great but mentally I'm starting to fall apart. I'm burping a lot, my stomach is unsettled.. I try to think up a plan.

Dusty Corners
As I make my way into Dusty Corners, my crew is waiting for me again. I feel awful, and by looking at their faces and watching them work around me, I knew I didn't look too hot either. A look of concern fell upon their faces, they spoke to me slowly and took some time to care for me a bit extra. I feel awful. I wander around in circles and look for some shade. I sit down in a chair and slowly eat a sandwich, sip
some water, then get up and go over to the dousing buckets. The aid volunteers try to cool me off. I want nothing more then to throw up. I take my time in this aid station and quickly realize that the sub-24 is quickly slipping away... no... it's all ready gone but in my head I was going to make up for lost time in the snow and along the unexpected amount of flats along the course. I get up out of the chair and slowly begin to walk out of the station.
The next stretch of course ended up being rated top 3 as worst case of "In the weeds" for me. I couldn't run. All I could do was vurp and vurp and vurp. I have smells of dizziness, I have a headache. I look up trail and see Teddy Roosevelt himself and just then, I throw up all over the course. I continue to walk and slowly trot along a flat winding section of trail along the side of a long downhill. I throw up again. My headache gets worse. I can't drink anything and I begin to worry. As I get into Millers Defeat, I run into the aid station knowing I was going to request Medical assistance. Normally in a race I try to avoid Med staff at all cost, it takes a lot for me to want to see them. I run in and jump on the scale. I'm only 2 pounds up for the race, but tell them whats going on. I sit down and sip ice water, eat a little and try to get my head on straight. I knew this was going to be the moment in this race that make or breaks me. While sitting in the chair I take a huge step back mentally. No longer would I run this race with a goal of running sun-24, that was long out of the question. Right now, I needed to switch my focus on survival. This is the first of four hundreds in four months.. I just NEED to finish. I decide to stop taking in salt for awhile until I can keep food down, I grab a tylenol from the "pill chair" and just then, I see David Snipes
"Sniper" at the aid table. I yell for him and he come's over. He pulls me from the chair and tells me to run with him.
After dousing myself once more, Sniper and I walk slowly from the aid station and eventually get into a trot finally able to talk to someone. Sniper and I have both been running this race virtually alone. No one has talked to either of us, it's weird, not what we're used to. What ever happened to that fun family of ultra-runners who chatted it up? Sniper and I made up for lost conversation as we continued down the road. He did most of the talking, I just listened while I tried to keep a steady trot about me. I needed to reel this race back in. Mentally I'm back in a good place, physically I feel OK... I'm not feeling sick anymore and before you know it, we're hauling ass downhill into Last Chance.

The Devil's Middle Finger
Down at Last Chance I take some time to scramble down to the river there. I take my shirt off and dunk it under water. I take off my hat and douse that as well. It's hot as hell down here in this Canyon with one of the bigger climbs on the course just ahead of me. Sniper yells down that he's going on ahead, while his buddy "Potts" comes off of the last downhill, looking for water himself. We trade places while I cross the bridge. Refill my bottles, put ice in both, grab some fruit and begin my long climb up hill. Thirty-Six switchbacks in all, not that they do any good, on this steep and arduous climb. I've done some steep climbs in my day, very few are quite like this. I know of a place called Barkley where the climbs are steeper.. I feel myself sweating bullets, I get light headed, nausea comes about and I stop to catch my breath. I see Sniper, he's calling for me, I tell him I'm coming... but I need a break. This hill is killing me slowly. Whenever I stop, I'm swarmed by mosquitoes looking for the blood of dying runners. I can't stop long, so I resign to walking uphill even if slowly. A blonde woman with tan skin comes along, her red running skirt is falling down, so much so that I can see her crack... We play leap frog, back and forth, as well as a few runners from Team Diablo. One man in particular is cramping bad, feels awful and can't keep anything down. I give him my last 2 salt tablets before continuing on, yelling at him not to quit.

I reach the top of Devil's thumb to a nice round of applause from volunteers and some bystanders. I have a huge smile on my face and am feeling great knowing I've just tackled one of the tougher climbs on the course, and the number of tough climbs is starting to quickly dwindle. A volunteer comes up to me, grabs my waist pack and I put him to work refilling things. I take a seat and drink some soup, and eat a few popsicles while sipping some pepsi on ice. The popsicles had been resting on dry ice, my lips get stuck to the pop. I ask when the leaders had come through.. "The hornet had come through at noon about 3 minutes ahead of Hal" Holy crap! That's 4+ hours earlier in the day. I decide to get up out of the chair and saunter on towards Michigan Bluff and my crew.

I run a ways along a ridge and eventually down into Eldorado Canyon, I cross Eldorado creek on another bridge where there is an aid station. I stock up once again for another climb. This one is longer then Devil's Thumb but not as steep. There are a few false summits and I'm climbing with the same group I went up the thumb with. What doesn't seem long into our climb and a medical worker comes from above and tells us we're about a mile and a half from the top and that there is a nice spring along the way. We climb and climb and climb... and after a half hour, someone else comes along and tells us we're about a mile out. The total climb is something like 2.5 miles and I'm dumb founded by the mileages these folks are giving us. We climb higher and another runner coming down from above tells us .75 miles... I feel like I'm getting further away with each step. I don't mind the mileage updates.. but I can't stand false hope. I just put my head down and continue to climb. We pass the spring the first guy told us about and a runner is sitting in it, dousing himself with cold stream water.
Michigan Bluff
I finally top out on top of the hill and run down the street and into Michigan Bluff aid station. The place is crazy with a few hundred crew members sprawled out over about a half mile radius waiting for their runners. I quickly see Sarah coming up the trail with the camera in hand. I trot just ahead of her down into the aid station. I weigh in and my weight is now down. I'm now finally over half way through the race, still feeling good but getting tired. I sit down in a chair at the aid station, when a camera and microphone appears in my face. It's a woman from the local community television station doing a story on some of the drama at Western States. She ask's me what's happened out there and I tell her about meeting Teddy Roosevelt. I also tell her about the heat, the climbs and the gorgeous country. It's been a breathtaking journey through some of America's most gorgeous forests. Just then, the aid station captain comes over and yells at Bret to get out of the way. He's not really in the way but he moves anyway, not before snapping back at her a bit.
My crew hands me a grilled cheese and some soda and a medical worker comes to check on me. He tells me I'm the first runner he's seen all day eating real food. I smile and tell him, "It's dinner time!" I loved the grilled cheese but could only eat about half of it, drink a soda and have some chips. I get up and one last time head to the aid table to pick at what they have. then the aid station captain tells me, in a rather snippy voice, that the food is for the runners only and that I'll "have to leave." I give her this stare, wondering if she is serious.. and when I discover that she isn't joking, I show her my number and ask her if I look that fresh? I figure I'd had enough of this place... and try take off down the road. I get muscle cramps in my ribs, I try to stretch them out but they kill, impeding my breathing, this kind of sucks. There are a few medical sweeps running with me, one I discover used to live in New Hampshire. They got a chuckle out of me holding their hands as we ran down the road.
Off to Foresthill
I talk with the medical sweeps for about a mile or so before the next big climb. We run down hill for quite a ways on some red gravel roads, past a few horses and then bam! We start another steep climb. The sun is setting now and it's finally starting to cool off a bit, but for whatever reason, my body is not adjusting to the weather so well anymore. I'm over-heating, drinking and sweating a lot. I climb a hill, passing a few runners along the way happy that I can still climb well. After we crest, it's down hill again and into Volcano Canyon. Once I cross Volcano Creek, it's another long uphill to Foresthill. At the top of the next climb, we run out onto some more paved roads where residents are outside in lawn chairs cheering us on and welcoming us to town. The town has really rolled out the red carpet for us. I take the final turn onto the main road and shuffle along. Hills, up and down, I'm great on. The flats? Not so much. I shuffle ever so slowly, moving at a gingerly pace to the school. I see Bret coming up the road. We talk for a bit, I tell him what I need and we enter the aid station. Sarah hands me my new waist pack and I get to work refilling it. My volunteer at the aid station gets me some soup and soda. I suck both down and we're ready to rumble. I weighed in here at even, 164 pounds. Sarah walks with us a little bit down the road as Bret has now signed on to pace me through the night. We say good night to Sarah knowing it'll be some time before we see her again and off we go.
Rafting Trip
After slowly walking out of Foresthill I tell Bret it takes me a bit to get the legs turning over again but I'm running the downhills just fine. About a mile down the road, he finds this out in earnest. We hit the first downhill and I take off flying and it's pretty much all down hill to Dardanelles. The sun has gone down and the hours tick by. At Dardanelles I tell Bret to let me sleep for 10 minutes. We run into the station, I see a cot, I go to get on it when another runner crashed on it before me. I take the loose sleeping bag and find a piece of flat ground and pass out. 10 Minutes later, Bret wakes me up. I drink soup, drink soda and we leave again. We leave Dardanelles and head off to Peachstone... after 20 minutes of running, I start to fall asleep again.. this time it's worse. Bret was warned before he took on pacing duties that this was likely to happen. He's heard of runners sleep-running but had never seen it before. Tonight, he got a great show. I would be running along and then I'd slow down quickly, weave left and right before coming to and starting to run again. Every so often I'd fall asleep and Bret would tap me on the shoulder to wake me up. 

As we continued down the trail hallucinations were abound. We were crossing bridges that weren't there. Running in between boulders that weren't there, around rocks and on top of rocks. I was a mess. At one point in time I feel asleep and started to fall to the right, Bret reached out and grabbed me by the Waist pack and saved me from falling off the side of the trail. An edge that seemed to go on forever. Could this be the mysterious "Karno Cliff?" The same place that Dean himself fell off and down in his dramatic run years ago?

Finally we make it to Rucky Chucky River Crossing. At the river crossing we run right to the boats after I weigh in. We walk down stone stepping and we're both handed some life-jackets. We put them on and get into a large grey raft with 4 other runners and a skipper. The captain rows his heart out from one shore to the next. On the far shore, volunteers in wet suits catch us and drag our boat onto shore where we could get out. We get out and walk uphill to the aid stop. I couldn't stop smiling and laughing all through the crossing. It was, to me, hilarious and a new experience all together. From Rucky Chucky it's uphill to Green Gate. As other crews come walking down the river, we let them know that they're all doing great and looking good. 

As we make our way to Brown's Bar, the sun finally starts to come up. We hear music blaring through the valley we're running through. It echoes off of the mountain sides. Bret cheers me on, trying to get me to stay with it while the sun continues to rise. It's been a tough night for sure, and I'm banking on that sun  to get me to move. We're talking more and joking more as we move along. At Brown's bar we cross a bridge and enter a weird place. Men wearing red dresses, weird music I've never heard before is playing. I need the bathroom and they direct me up a short hill to an outhouse I'm sure was made just for the race. I go inside and it rocks back and forth. Flies everywhere, no lock on the door, I can't help but laugh. We leave here quickly and head for Highway 49, where Sarah is waiting patiently.

Life is A Highway
We crest the top of the Hill and end up on Highway 49 where Sarah is waiting for us. She'd been worried for hours as we're a few late coming in here. Bret tells her about the sleep running and she giggles. Nothing she's not accustomed to. We say hello very quickly at the highway crossing. Bret and Sarah talk and refill my bottles while I pick from the aid table. I get the word that Christian was pulled at Rucky Chucky and Jeff was still coming. Just then I look up and John Holt from New York had caught me. I grab Bret, say bye to Sarah and we head off down the trail with John who I affectionately call "The Indian." We saunter up another hill before topping out in a large field. We run along while our pacers talk. John sets the pace and I follow him. We're moving pretty smoothly considering. I'd seen John hours before, he was falling asleep as well and his feet are a mess. I can feel a popped blister on my right foot, the serum squishing in and out between my toes. I feel other huge blisters on my heels. I don't dare touch them despite the please of medical staff who tell me it'll feel better. "B.S." I've run enough of these to know better and I'm leaving my blisters alone.

John asks if we should tie on on together. I tell him Sarah is going to run with me on the last mile. He's moving great so I tell him to run ahead. He takes off and I never see him again until after the finish. Bret tells me that we still have some time left in our favor but not much. It's getting close. I thought I had until Noon to finish.. but I'm wrong. I have until 11. I start shuffling along with a sense of urgency. We run down hill one last time before finally seeing the No Hands Bridge. The bridge we joke was named after it's builder, Karno, who built it with his massive pecks and calves only. We stop only briefly at the aid station to refill the bottles one more time and grab some fruit before we cross the American River again. It's hot again, temps rising towards 100 degrees rather quickly. I've got to finish before the sun drags me down.

We cross No Hands bridge and Bret snaps a few photos. Then the final climb begins. I'm all smiles, Here I am.. the final climb of the 2010 Western States 100. Before the race even begins, people ask me why I'm not excited or nervous. I'm not nervous because I've run 100 miles before, I'm not excited because I have no reason to be yet. But here, 97 miles into the run, I'm finally excited. For me the work doesn't come in the training, the work is the race. Getting to 100 miles whatever time it is. This is the time to be excited. When the work is done. Soon I look to my left and realize we're almost to the top of the hill. The sun is hot and beating down on us. We crest one final rise and exit out onto a street where there is the final aid station. People are congratulating me left and right. I see Bob Becker from Florida and he comes over to pat me on the shoulder. I grab some fruit and crack some jokes with those who are around. On the pavement are red footmarks for us to follow. Bret and I continue to climb up one last hill.. and at the top I see Sarah with the camera and wearing all of my extra running clothes.

The Finale
Together, the three of us run together through the streets of Auburn California where people sit outside on their lawn chairs and clap as we roll by. Cars honk and people wave. It's like a hero's welcome as we wind our way towards the track. We take pictures while we take these final steps having passed by the sign that says Mile 99. Now it's time to celebrate, time to smile and get giddy. I always joke that its not about what happens from Point A to Point B.. it's getting to Point B and looking good when you get there. I feel and look great. I'm trotting down the road, shuffling even, just fine. I hear the speakers from the track and after 4 years of dreaming, and wanting, and trying my damnedest to get HERE... to THIS moment... the Pacer High School track, Sarah and I run out onto the lanes and take one final lap around the track. Bret takes off with the Camera while Sarah and I hold hands as we work our way around the track. 
After all these years running, She finally gets to pace me some... even if it is the start of our Honeymoon. I take what is left in my water bottle and dump it on my head to cool off one last time. We take the final turn and the announcer announces my name. I have no idea what else he says, I leave Sarah and head down the shoot. I cannot believe it. Now I'm excited, now I'm nervous. I jump up and hit the clock like I did at the start. 100.2 Miles... I made it all the way to Auburn from Squae in 28 Hours and 29 Minutes. Not the time I wanted.. but it counts as a finish. The first of the grand slam.. and a dream, even though small, realized. I'm a Western States Finisher!