|Prerace meeting, mountains behind.|
Bonus points if you can make out the
runners on the mountain.
Going to the pre-race meeting at Squaw Valley, on the other hand, is kind of intimidating. First of all, they had the 1960 Winter Olympics there, so you're walking past all the olympic rings and everything -- not like this is an event for weenies. But more importantly, you're looking right at the first mountain in the course. And the cable car that goes up it, getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And the people running on the road you're going to take, who are probably 1/4 of the way up and already look like ants. The irony is, that first climb isn't anywhere near the hardest part of the course. But it would have been nice if they covered that mountain with trees, all the same.
|All tapered up and ready to go!|
The pre-race meeting was nice, sitting around outside. Though I'm not sure where everyone else got chairs from. Are there really that many locals in the race, or do people check a chair through their flights? Whatever. They lined up all the front-runners so we'd get to see them at least once, gave out various volunteer and trail maintenance awards, and covered the course and snow situation in somewhat less detail than you can get online. And that was about it for the preliminaries.
|At the 5 AM start, with my crew,|
"Old Johnny One-Eye"
The Start & Snow Country
And then, we hit the final 10-second countdown (which we did a remarkable poor job of, getting off by nearly a second by the time we hit "3"), and the race began!
Of course, it starts with a few miles up a mountain road, so it didn't feel so much like a "race" just yet. I guess this is a ski trail in the "on" season, because we passed a lot of signs facing the other way. I tried not to walk much, but there were some steeper bits... it was a compromise. I hit the first aid station 3.5 miles up the road in about 35 minutes, so I guess I was doing all right.
Shortly afterward, we turned off the road onto a snowy slope, continuing to head straight up. I thought it was pretty groovy to be running in the snow in late June. The only tough part was when it got super-steep, but there were kind of steps carved into the snow, so it was passable. Eventually we came out onto some cleared ground, but it didn't last too long. I gave a little cheer when we got back onto the snow. While we were headed up, it seemed great!
I started hearing a strange noise ahead, and shortly saw what looked like the pass coming up. There was some scary footing along a pretty steep drop, so I couldn't look much, but then I was past that and saw someone drumming on a big gong, and a monument off to the side. This was it! The top of the first climb, and the highest point on the course, in all its snow-covered glory. I didn't really feel like the altitude of 8,700' was bothering me at all, which was nice -- I've never run above maybe half that before and I wasn't sure if I'd have trouble.
|Guess they knew I was coming!|
Periodically the snow on the trail faded in favor of running through creeks of melting snow instead. I had to acknowledge that just like the mountains, the snow is different on the left coast. So yeah, I still enjoy running in the snow, but some snow is better for it than others. :) Finally we got to some solid snowy downhill, which worked just fine for me -- at least if I slipped here I'd just slide for a bit on my butt instead of splaying arms and legs in every direction. Until we got lost.
Somehow, I ended up in the lead of a pack of runners, with no one else in sight ahead. The trail markers seemed few and far between, so I just followed the footprints. Until they stopped. It was hard to tell; where I was, the snow had little pockets in it like waves on the water. Maybe 20 yards up I had come down a little bump that was clearly well-traveled, but now, no clear path. It's possible there were some prints here or there, but so hard to tell against the background. The runners immediately behind me called out to the ones behind them to find streamers. No one could. Some people headed back uphill, but I was reluctant to, since I was sure I had been right until that little bump. Finally someone found road off to our right, and it was agreed we ought to be following the road. I cut over there and let someone else take the lead, and before too long we saw another streamer. I have no idea how the race leaders navigated this section. There really was no discernable trail through the snow cover.
The road led down to the point where the "snow route" diverged from the regular course. Because of the amount of snow on the course, some aid stations were too hard to access, and an alternate route was used for perhaps 10 or 15 miles. It had much less snow -- only pockets -- but as we headed into it I quickly decided that I didn't much care for it. First of all, it made a huge 9.5 mile stretch between the first and second aid stations, and also increased the distance to the first drop bag station. But more importantly, it was a lot of road. Gravel road, pavement, just running down a road for maybe 8 or 9 miles. Fast, yes, fun, not really. I just wanted it to end.
Fortunately, after refilling my supply of gels from my drop bag at the second "alternate" aid station, we headed straight onto a really nice single-track trail around a lake. That was the break I needed! It was a nice trail, nice forest, rolling a bit and going in and out of the creases in the terrain, very enjoyable. A few miles later, though, we began the climb to the Duncan Canyon aid station, and it was a shocker. They told us we'd know we were getting there when we hit the "incineration", and it was true -- this was the first of a couple scorched earth sections of the run. There were burned out wrecks of trees everywhere, and we were wide open to the sky. The vegetation was a mess, though there was still an obvious trail to follow. It also tripped me up once, some kind of root just reaching out and grabbing my foot so when I tried to carry on forward I just landed on my face, narrowly avoiding becoming part of the trail for the runner behind me! No injuries, though, so I just dusted myself off and we headed on. The people around me were walking this one, and I felt like I could have jogged it, but I decided to save my energy and walked with the crowd. Before long we made it to the aid station, which was the first time I saw my dad on the course.
|Coming into the Duncan Canyon station|
That one was nuts, even leaving aside the fact that the whole thing was on top of snow (they actually advised crews not to go there unless they had especially warm shoes). As each runner came into the station, a volunteer claimed them. That volunteer did everything for you from the moment you arrived until the moment you left. There were even more to help if you needed more, plus the ones getting drop bags out. It was seriously the most incredible aid station at any ultra I've done, at least in terms of the organization and support (I can't say anything about the food, as I didn't actually try it). I think this was the first weight check as well, and I weighed in at 163 -- high according to my baseline, but probably accurate or slightly low in reality.
|Arriving at the Dusty Corners station|
The next section into Last Chance was the last chance before the canyons. I had seen the canyons on the elevation chart, but even as nasty as they look there, it doesn't do them justice. All that is to say, I should have taken a little more time to smell the roses before I got there. Oh, well. I did take one last precaution and put some ice under my hat at Last Chance. Heading out, it didn't seem too bad, but then went into a pretty steep descent with switchbacks and all. The good news was, it was largely under tree cover, so we avoided direct sunlight, and the heat was manageable. I felt it getting warmer as we went into the canyon, but it never got too bad. My toes weren't too happy about the bashing they were getting going down, but hey, them's the breaks.
|At Foresthill; all wet from keeping cool|
in the canyons
The problem hit at the top. I weighed in -- high again, at 168 or so. So that necessitated a discussion with the medical staff, where I explained that I felt no worse than you might expect from reaching that point. They let me go, but it was after that that the problem hit. I felt awful. I mean terrible. I felt like that climb took every last drop of energy out of me. The course was flat or downhill for nearly a mile, and I walked the majority of it. People passed me, though not as many as I might have expected, and I saw some of them soon after when they stopped to walk too. That climb was just a killer! I passed one pair who had passed me a few minutes back, and then heard a discussion that ended with "you go on". And then one of them went by at a jog. I spent the next few miles in the company of the other one, off and on.
The course turned down for probably the longest solid descent of the day, perhaps 2,500' over 4 miles. For the most part it was "manageably steep", and I ran it. There were a lot of people I flip-flopped with, sometimes passing, sometimes being passed, depending on who was walking a bit to rest or take a drink or gel or whatever. At one point I asked the guy from before how he was doing, and he said "I feel terrible, but I'm forcing myself to run, just like you are." Guess I couldn't argue with that. But all in all, a long descent was probably a decent way to recover from going up Devil's Thumb. Again I was going down with ice under my hat, and didn't feel so bad. And this time, there was an aid station at the bottom. The best part about it was the buckets of cold water with large sponges -- I felt like a whole new man with freezing water on my head and neck and back. The trip back up to Michigan Bluff didn't go fast, but I felt a lot better about it.
|At Foresthill; apparently neither of us|
were ready to be photographed
Midway: Foresthill and the River
|Visiting with the 'fam at Foresthill|
On the way over, something very interesting happened: one of the volunteers asked if I had a pacer. I said no. Then they asked if I wanted one! Now I had been fine with going the distance myself. But they caught me just after I had been thinking about how I was not in the greatest shape for the next 38.2 miles... it was a low moment. I could only say "Yes... yes I would!"
|Ready to go!|
|One last introduction; this time|
the pacer stuck. Whew!
Most important, Clare was very friendly, plenty fast, knew the course well, and was happy to lead so I didn't have to spend mental energy on looking for trail markings. I don't think I probably impressed her much on the pavement leading out of Foresthill, right around 13 hours, but I felt good again by the time we hit trails. It helped that it was largely downhill to the next station (Cal 1). I actually surprised myself with how good I felt there. Until I fell, though fortunately, not onto anything, so it seemed pretty innocent. It was only when I cooled my legs in a stream crossing later that I noticed the blood all over my leg. Oh, well. We didn't make much better than 12 minute miles, but that would still get me in close to 21 hours if I could keep it up! Of course, your times would always be stellar if you could just keep the present pace for the rest of the race... Anyway, we passed a couple people, including someone who said "Was that one of you who fell back there? We heard that!"
|Departing Foresthill. Could these legs|
handle another 38 miles?
By this point in the race, I was doing a lot of finish time figuring. Each station had a poster showing the ETA for a 24-hour finisher (adjusted for terrain and etc.), and Clare was watching those for me. We were consistently over an hour ahead, usually 1:05, 1:10, or whatever. It hurt when I lost time to a station stop, but I was staying ahead. I kept figuring I'd be closer to 22:30 if I could keep up the pace, but maybe their estimations included some information (like climbs) that I wasn't privy to. Anyway, it was all looking good. But somehow the next section to Cal 3, while short and mostly steeply downhill, was as slow as any -- you'd have thought it was uphill instead! I was starting to feel like I was seriously losing toenails, from all the bashing on the downhills, and everything hurt from the waist down. My right ankle was really bothering me, around where the band for the timing chip was strapped. My heels and big toes definitely felt blistered. What do you expect, I guess? I kept going, and tried not to subject Clare to my litany of discomfort. Meanwhile, she was doing a stellar job of keeping me on pace and on trail, and taking my mind off things with questions and conversation and so on. I was starting to think I hit the lottery again at Pacer Central!
We saw the river briefly and headed up again, as promised. Then after Cal 3, there was a longish section down to and along the river, before we finally got to the crossing. There were several more times I thought we must be just about there, and weren't. We leapfrogged a bit with one of the faster women in the race, joking about sharing a boat across the river, though in the end she blew by before we got there -- I think while we paused to equip our headlamps. Clare had thought we might get to the river crossing before dark, though it had seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end I think we were about 15 minutes late. Still, we made it in about 3.5 hours from Foresthill (16 miles), near a 22-hour pace.
|The river we crossed?|
At the far side aid station I restocked my pack from a drop bag, feeling like it was taking much too long, and then we headed up the long hill to Green Gate. Clare had me aiming for a good walking pace, but the good news was, I was able to jog a few bits and do even better. Though there was at least one time I tried jogging a steeper bit and she told me candidly I might as well walk because it wasn't any faster. :)
Still, we made good time to the top, passing people back who got by while I was restocking my pack, and I saw my dad at Green Gate too. I had just a few equipment tweaks there, getting into a dry long sleeve shirt for the night and so on. And then we were off for the longest remaining stretch of the race, to Auburn Lake Trails. This one was long and had plenty of uphill, though it seemed to go well, if anything picking up toward the end. It may not have been super fast overall, but I was still picking up time against the 24-hour pace, still over an hour ahead.
85 Miles: Disaster Strikes!
Checking in at ALT, there was a weigh-in and the usual medical discussion. As an independent (sort of), Clare also assured them that I was running well and had peed recently, so we were good. But walking from the scales toward the food, one of the medical guys just wouldn't let it go. I emphasized again that I was level from the last several aid stations, had been underweighed before the race, and was running well. At one point I turned and had a brief moment of dizziness, but thought nothing of it. Compared to the way my feet felt, for instance, it was nothing.
Then I opened my eyes. I was lying on the ground, looking up at the medic. Clare was behind me, apparently holding my head. Uh-oh. This was not a positive development. It felt very good to be lying down. Then the medical team multiplied, and they were taking blood pressure, pulse, and various other readings. I was cold, so they piled on some blankets. Someone stuffed something under my head so Clare didn't have to keep holding it. I immediately assumed they were going to yank me out of the race, which was a bummer as I had already signed up for the whole Grand Slam. Eventually we got around to discussing the future. They wanted to get me sitting up, so they could feed me some salty food, but they wanted my blood pressure over 100 first (it was initially like 70/50 or something pretty ridiculously low). They thought I might be able to go on in the race, if I spent enough time resting and recovering first. As major disasters go, it was not looking as bad as I had feared.
|I'm sure they were wondering|
what the heck was going on!
Eventually, people started telling me I was looking a lot better, and finally I got up and walked around the station a bit. Another weigh-in and I was only down to 168, so more walking, eating, etc. until I could pee more. I changed into the tights and long-sleeve shirt, and shifted the chafing timing band to the other ankle. I mean, it might have just been the sock (first ultra I've worn them in), but it was only the right one until I moved the chip (and by the end the left got chafed too). Walking by the fire felt nice, but I was trying to shed layers and see if I could keep warm without all the help. I felt bad for a couple folks dropping at that station -- one pacer who hurt himself in a fall, a runner who had run through the pain of a hamstring problem since mile 35, and probably more. There was no ride out, either, for quite some time -- this was one of the more remote stations. I wondered what my dad and Erin were making of this, though I was assured they'd see that I had checked into the station and not checked out, so they'd at least know I was here. (Later I found out my status showed that I was still on the course until I had actually left ALT, and the only thing they heard from race officials was that I probably dropped and just hadn't been ferried out yet.) One more pee and I was down to 167.
In any case, the moment finally arrived when Lucas, the medical guy in charge of my case, said the decision on what to do next was in my hands. I said, of course if I'm going to be walking around, I want it to be toward the finish line, what do you expect? He said I could go, but until my weight got down to 162-163 I was not allowed to drink anything. Gels were good, fruit was OK (except watermelon or other too-watery things), no liquids. Now I'm a gel guy, so this was a script for gels chased by strawberries for the next 8+ miles (they didn't have scales at Brown's Bar, the next station). Ugh.
But I was darn happy to be moving out, and had big thanks for the medics and a big cheer with the exit staff as I headed on.
The only problem was, I had just run 85 miles, and then rested for 3 hours. This is not good prep for running another 15 miles. They had told me "don't go too hard", and I could only say "as if!" Imagine running an ultra, lying down for 3 hours, and then someone says OK let's do another 15! Uh, yeah, right.
We walked. At first, it was just one foot in front of another. After maybe 20 minutes, I tried a shuffle, which basically amounted to a regular walk for Clare. Leaving 85 miles at about 21:30 in the race, we figured I could walk 30 minute miles and still finish under the 30 hour cutoff, but I wanted to do at least 20 minute miles -- I mean, 7 more hours on the course was just too demoralizing. I couldn't realistically aim for better than 5, but somehow that didn't seem quite as dire. The only good news was that I was staying warm. On top of everything else I had borrowed some used socks for gloves, and I ended up stowing those before too long.
|Another view of the river|
We marched on, first heading away from the station and then curling around toward it. And suddenly, I saw lights ahead! It felt great; I really didn't feel like it had been that far since we first heard it (certainly nothing like the miles uphill to the loud station on the Mountain Masochist course!). And we were coming in right about 90 minutes, or just under a 20 min/mile pace. The one wrinkle was the 20 yards of straight up to actually get into the station, but I made it. I sat and ate a little -- Clare having refreshed my fruit supply. Sadly they didn't have a scale, so I was still on the zero-liquid diet until the next station. The volunteers were all dressed up in funny, um, attire, it was lit up great, and the music was outstanding. I think I enjoyed this station most of all the ones on the course. I definitely left with a spring in my step!
The next section was tough, though. A lot of downhill, which felt terrible on my quads -- I mean, awful, no good, very bad. A short level bit. Then a lot of uphill on single track to the highway crossing. Clare said we were going past a quarry, though I couldn't really tell except for one brief glimpse of a rock wall through the trees. It was steep. I guess I felt better about uphills, since I was probably not that much slower than the other runners on an uphill, but it sure didn't go fast. I heard the highway long before we got to the actual crossing -- I kept thinking we must be there, and seeing glimpses of things through the trees that looked like crossing signs, but turned out to be illusions. Finally, she pointed out the station ahead and across the road, so we just needed to come out to a parking lot and cross. It even seemed like there was one tiny hill left before that, but eventually we made it out. I heard them announce us on a big P.A. system to some cheers, and Clare said something about how the scale better bring us good news. I said I hoped my dad was still there. The volunteers at the crossing said "judging by the screams, you've got some kind of crew there!" We crossed the road with no trouble.
Then, I pretty much collapsed. This was the first time I saw my dad since the trouble, so I'm sure he was glad to see that I was still moving under my own power, and I was sure glad to see him. But I was a bit of a wreck. The only good news was that I weighed in at 163, so I was down to what was probably my real starting weight. The medical folks here OK'd liquids again, so I collapsed in a chair and had soup, 7-Up (it was supposed to be water but I didn't complain), water, the Gu drink, and whatever else they sent my way. Some food. Some rest. Eventually I picked up and got moving again, after what felt like maybe 5 minutes but appears in reality to have been 26 minutes. Someone who I talked to at the finish said he saw me here and figured "that guy's done; there's no way he'll ever finish." But now there was only 6.5 miles to go -- I could crawl and make it. I wasn't going to not go on. Two sections left.
|Target: No Hands Bridge|
Mile 96: Turnaround
Then another strange thing happened. Clare seemed to sense that I had a little more to give, and asked if I could lengthen my stride just a bit. I said no, but I might be able to pick up the cadence a little. Which I tried, and immediately found that it was strangely difficult to go just a little bit faster. I think I said "aw, what the hell, might as well jog it!" So we did! It was perfect timing -- my quads had just gone numb again, and jogging felt just fine, and the downhill helped pull us along. We even paused to look at the actual special bridge, when we got a view of it, and starting up again wasn't a problem. Of course, it did take about 20 minutes until Clare pointed out No Hands Bridge just below, so I didn't seem to be actually going much faster, but it felt good anyway.
|Coming into the No Hands Bridge|
station in my borrowed clothes
It was great to break out of the trails onto a fire road, because there were loads of people there, all cheering for the guy who wasn't walking the hill. One guy running down the hill seemed utterly dumbfounded, and yelled out something like "what a comeback!" Clare said I should look out for the gate at the end of the road, because that was the transition to pavement in Auburn, and amazingly, I could practically see it as soon as she said it! We blew past the tiny Robie Point aid station onto the pavement, and carried on up the hill. Perhaps not as fast, it was pretty steep, but still not walking. She prepped me for all the landmarks, and we followed footsteps painted onto the road, leading the way to the Placer High School track. One or two last runners flew by on the way downhill to the stadium, so I guess I wasn't the most energetic one left on the course, but I still felt great about my last leg here. Then we crossed the road into the stadium! There were slow-moving folks ahead, and I may have even passed one on the first long stretch on the track. The announcer called out that there were three runners entering the stadium, and then announced the same name three times, which I found kind of odd. By the time he got around to mine, I was entering the final corral, with another runner just ahead, and our pacers split off to the side.
|This guy really psyched me up!|
|My excellent crew found me at the cot|
Clare hung out with me at the finish, and eventually her friends showed up (I'd heard a lot of running and pacing stories about them along the way -- I suppose I'm just darn lucky none of them got into the race this year!). My dad beat us to the finish, but not by a lot. I guess if I could have gone just a little bit faster I could have really surprised him! But I won't ask for that much...
|Relaxing with Caelan at an arcade post-race|
In closing, special thanks to my dad for crewing, Clare for an outstanding job of pacing -- more than going above and beyond, all the volunteers on the course who helped get me through those aid stations, Lucas and the rest of the medical team at ALT for keeping me in this one, and last but not least, that guy at the end for telling me what a great turnaround it was. :)
|The WSER 100: Our little family getaway|