|Counting down to the start...|
This all started in 2010, when I ran Western States as the first race in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. In the 2010 race, my weight was up (a lot) for the entire day. I tended to discount it, thinking maybe the check-in scale had been low, because I was running well. But when I got to 85 miles, I ran into a medic who wouldn't let it go. We were standing around arguing about whether it mattered, when I fainted on the spot, and, well, he won the argument by default. They did eventually let me go on and finish (when I finally peed off enough of the excess weight, believe it or not), but I was in that aid station for 3 hours, and I missed any chance at the coveted sub-24-hour silver finisher's buckle. And it always bothered me a little that the race shirt says right on it "100 Miles -- One Day", when I hadn't finished in one day.
So I tended to think of Western States as a race where I had unfinished business. I wanted to go back for that Silver Buckle. When I got through the entry lottery this year, that's exactly what I planned to do. Of course, given that I had been on a 22.5-hour pace until that siesta, and I've seemed to be racing better lately, I had some more aggressive goals in mind. Best case would be sub-20. But the truth is, I mainly wanted the buckle and I thought it was going to be (relatively) easy to get, so I wasn't too nervous. In fact, at the medical check-in, they told me I had about the best blood pressure all day. I said really? Isn't everyone here pretty fit? They said, well you're just more relaxed about it.
I felt ready. Western States tends to be a hot race -- the section between 24 and 60 miles includes going down and back up four different canyons, and it gets pretty stinking hot down in the canyons -- they tell you to expect 110 degrees. I had a vivid memory of 2010 when I got to the El Dorado Creek aid station at the bottom of the third canyon, and they had a bucket of water with sponges, and I just squeezed cool water over my head for what seemed like several minutes. At the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, I basked in a small pool before beginning the climb back out. It wasn't even one of the hottest race days, but it had been plenty warm for me! So I did some heat training again this year, running and going to CrossFit in winter clothes in May. I feared it would be a hot one since the winter snowfall had been so light, though as race day approached, the forecast for the surrounding towns was more mild -- in the 80s instead of the 90s. If it was going to be cool, it seemed like I might have won the lottery on weather too! (Oh, how little did I know...)
|Map and Elevation Chart from the Participant Guide|
The morning before Western States, the kids and I went out to see where everything was this year. We saw the sign-up for the 6K, which was mobbed, the Western States check-in, also with a huge line, and the race store, where we scored some additional loot. Perhaps more importantly, we discovered that alongside the gravel road up the mountain, there was a hill just fine for climbing! So long as you don't mind repeatedly sliding back down the hill into your brother and kicking a bunch of dust into his face, that is. (This, it turned out, was not a concern.)
A little later, my parents met us so I could do the check-in, and thankfully by then the line was a lot shorter. My dad had come to crew for me, as he does for most of my longer ultras, so I would be blessed with support along the way. Erin and the kids and I had also met up with Clare the day before, who I'd see once at an aid station and then she'd pace me from Foresthill (62 miles) to the finish. So I'd have additional support for most of the second half of the race, crucially including any nighttime running. Though I joked that the only reason she was pacing me (having failed to get through the lottery like five times herself while I've gotten in two times out of three) was to wait until 97 miles and then stick a knife in my back. I think she promised that at least it would go in smooth.
At any rate, the goodies were bountiful, including at least a backpack, hoodie, a pin, food and supplements, and something unidentifiable from Moeben -- it seems kind of like an arm sleeve for Andre the Giant. Or maybe a thigh sleeve for a one-legged ultrarunner. (Needless to say, I'm still wondering...) Other than that and the blood pressure remark, the check-in was pretty uneventful. We did visit the start of the course again afterward, so the boys could show off their dust-generating skills for their grandparents, though none of the rest of us were actually that eager to climb too far up.
One thing did bother me a little -- I seemed to be noticing the altitude. I hadn't remembered any issues last time, but this time around it was pretty easy for me to get out of breath if I was just breathing through my nose -- a few steps up the hill and I'd have to start breathing through my mouth instead. Not that this was disastrous, but it seemed like the 6000'+ at Squaw Valley was not completely trivial -- and the first 40 miles of the race was pretty much that high or more. I guess we'd see how it mattered in practice.
After lunch I had one small matter to attend to. Going through a lot of gels like I normally do, I end up carrying quite a few to make it between crew stations where I can refill from my dad. It would be nice to rely more on the aid stations, but I don't seem to be able to take in enough calories via solid food, and in general I haven't been able to depend on aid stations at ultras to consistently have gels, much less any particular flavor or caffeine content or anything particular I might be looking for. So mainly I carry my own. The issue here was the distance between crew stations, especially in the first half of the race. I didn't really fancy carrying basically a box of gels, which is about what I would have needed. So I needed a drop bag. I ran the numbers again and it seemed like just one drop bag would be enough, at the Last Chance aid station.
On the other hand, since I hadn't really planned this out in advance, I was already slightly past the drop bag deadline -- and it was about time for the pre-race meeting to start. So Caelan helped me pull out the right proportion of regular and caffeinated gels, I marked up a ziploc bag, and off we went to see if I had one Last Chance for a drop bag. There were no signs left suggesting where drop bags should go, so I headed over to where I sort of remembered them being the previous time, and sure enough, we saw a few piles of bags there. Far too few piles, and a bunch of piled-up station markers off to one side: some of the bags had already departed. Was Last Chance one of them? We walked over, and happily, there was still a big pile of bags under that marker. I turned to Caelan to ask him to drop my bag there, and he was empty-handed. What? What did you do with the bag? I put it down. Where? In the pile. Fortunately just one pile down, easily located. I explained that each pile was going to a different place, and it was pretty important to get my bag in the right one. As I explained that, I was looking at someone else's bag in the Last Chance pile, with Devil's Thumb (a different aid station) clearly written on it. I hoped it was a last-minute change and not a mistake.
After that, we walked over to the meeting, which was right around the corner. I couldn't find my dad in the crowd. Nor could I get close enough to consistently hear what they were saying, between the wind and the angle of the speakers and various people who didn't hold the mic too close or whatever. After a while playing in the dirt, Caelan was ready to move on, and frankly, I was too. My recollection of the meeting from the first time is that it went on a really long time to convey relatively little information -- and nothing that wasn't available elsewhere. So we bailed, and I put the time to good use by taking a nap instead. Truly, that was the preparation I needed -- much more so than a meeting.
Later that night, I had my celebrity experience. I was walking back toward our room, and I passed two runner-looking types going the other direction, deep in conversation. I thought nothing of it, until I saw the guy slinking along a little behind them, trying to hold a camera extremely steady. I must have given him a look, because the next guy in this little parade, just strolling along with a full-size tripod, gave me an apologetic smile. So I'm sure they were trailing someone faster and more sponsored than me -- but I have no idea who it was. Oh, well. Maybe I'll see me walking past them in a video some day.
That night, the last before the race, I ended up staying up a little later than I might have liked. I had to pack my gels into bags for my dad, go over the directions and ETAs for him and for Erin in case she ended up coming out to any of the stations, arranging S-caps and other miscellany into my hydration pack and spare, and all the other odds and ends that hadn't seemed that important until suddenly there wasn't any time left. But whatever, you figure, with all the things that go into training for an running a race, how important can an extra half-hour of sleep really be? At least I slept reasonably well, under the circumstances.
In the morning I picked up my bib, woke up my dad, and we headed over to the start. To the last moment, I was waffling over what to wear. The Squaw Valley forecast had said 30s overnight, but the real problem in the race is heat, not cold. So I didn't see dressing for the cold and then needing to change within the first quarter of the race. Plus it felt warmer than 30s suggested. I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and arm sleeves, with a jacket and gloves for the standing around part, and I wasn't uncomfortable. I considered keeping the jacket and gloves, but as I wasn't going to see my dad until Robinson Flat (30 miles), I was of the mindset that I should be minimizing extra carrying. So with a couple minutes to go, I left the jacket and gloves with him, and lined up with the crowd to keep warm.
Start, Escarpment, Lyon's Ridge
There was not a lot of hoopla at the start -- with under a minute to go, Gordy gave his traditional send-off, and then there was a 10-second countdown, a shotgun blast, and we headed up the mountain. Almost immediately, I was faced with a choice. I could tell it was not going to be a cakewalk up the hill -- I was going to have to push hard to keep running all the way. And I could tell that my breathing wasn't great, presumably on account of the altitude. Then there was the cold, though running up the steep gravel road mitigated that to a large degree. I decided to run when it felt reasonably easy, and hike when it was feeling hard. I told myself it was wisdom to save up for later in the race, that I'd enjoy passing all the people who burnt themselves out early. I wondered if it was actually a lack of sufficient training.
That's one of the things that's happened since Sarah joined our family -- my training volume has been way down. In the past I might have peaked at 70 miles a week, and now outside of races, I would say I peaked at about 35 miles. Sure I've done several ultras this year, and that would have to stand in for my high-volume training. I've also found CrossFit has helped with my running. But when five seconds before the start you feel like superman, and five minutes afterward you feel somewhat more mortal, you always start to wonder whether it's all finally caught up with you...
|Photo credit: Jeffrey Genova|
By this time, the fog was rain, the rain was cold, there was a substantial wind blowing, and I was seriously reconsidering the decision to leave the jacket with my dad. Then the hail started. But I figured every step downward was a good one, taking us out of the nasty mountaintop weather. The terrain here was familiar -- nice rolling trails, making their way down from the top. We were running through some forested bits and other parts that seemed more like just scrub on the mountain, with the occasional small climb up a creekbed or over some rocks. Much better footing without the snow! The downhills were often a little steep and rutted, with a single clear-ish path and rockier or less stable parts beside and below. I was willing to go somewhat faster on those than most of the people around, but there wasn't much clear room to pass, and I kept being help up by the people just ahead. The price of taking it easy on the climb, I guess. For a while I told myself that I would just keep on conserving, but when we hit a wider point, I blew on by. Immediately skidded a little, as I had taken one of the side routes, and hoped I wouldn't pass someone only to wipe out just in front of them! Fortunately I held it together.
Happily, the fog largely cleared as we descended. But the wind and rain didn't give up. I continued to pass folks here and there, noticing the spot where we went off-trail in the snow the time before, and running decently well on a downhill fire road. Overall, while the weather was a little uncomfortable, I was running well, and managed to average a 10-minute pace on this leg despite the climb to the top to begin it. If could keep running like that, it was going to be a very good day. In fact, the Lyon's Ridge aid station at 10.5 miles was the best position in the race I logged for the entire thing. About the only issue was that I could feel the altitude again every time I drank. I'd take a few sips from my hydration pack while breathing through my nose, and get so out of breath I'd have to pause and suck wind before I could go back to breathing through my nose and take another few sips. Weird.
Red Star Ridge, Duncan Canyon
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the more serious troubles to kick in. The next section was rolling, but didn't trend down as much overall. It was slower going. My legs were suddenly unhappy. The trail was great -- I did appreciate the regular route much more than the snow route we took last time. But something wasn't right. I couldn't take the rocky downhills fast. I had to walk bits of even the flatter trails. By the time we rolled into the Red Star Ridge aid station at 16 miles, I could tell something was wrong. Leg cramps were threatening, and my hands were swollen. Since I certainly wasn't dehydrated in the early, cold part of the race, that wasn't it. So to me, it all pointed to overhydrating, my major problem from the last time I did this race. But how? I hadn't even filled my hydration pack enough times to have been drinking too much! Whatever the cause, something was obviously wrong. I determined to cut back on the water going into the following Duncan Canyon aid station. So I was willing to lose some time here if I could sort myself out.
Again, the trail was great. I remembered an extended run and ascent through a burned-out section of the forest on the snow route, but this time we just weaved in and out of bits of it, without the long climb. It didn't seem as charred this time -- we went around huge trunks cut short, but they just looked like strange toothpicks jammed in the ground, instead of the fire being so obvious. The field had spread out a bit, so I wasn't running with people close ahead and behind any more, though there was often someone in sight at least. Toward the end, I closed in on and passed someone, so at least I wasn't in the worst shape of anyone around... Meanwhile I had cut back to maybe half of what I'd normally drink in a race. But the weather was still bothering me. We had gone through more patches of hail, and the rain, while not strong, wasn't giving up either. At least I'd be seeing Clare here, so there would be a friendly face.
|Photo credit: Keith Blom|
As it turned out, it wasn't right after the aid station. There was a flattish mile or so first, which had sort of a touch of jungle about it. Not sure why, just the brush was different. And just as I was feeling better and running with some pace, wham! The trail came up and slapped me in the face. Or maybe I just faceplanted into the trail. Details, details. All I know is that suddenly I was rolling into my back to avoid skidding further on my hands and knees. Great. When I got up, there didn't seem to be any major damage, except I had bruised something in my hip or the side of my butt or something. Just enough that it felt kind of lousy to run on. Lovely. As people caught up from behind, I got moving again. The descent into the canyon was pretty mild, and it did warm up a tad. Plus, by the bottom, the rain had more or less quit. I started to think there was hope.
The long climb out of Duncan Canyon was slow going, though. I felt better hiking consistently than jogging off and on, as some others around me did. But when we got to the top, and the trail leveled a bit, I had trouble getting running again. That wasn't great. The rain started again. That wasn't great. I sure wasn't keeping to a 12-minute pace here. And it got colder again. Are you getting the picture? I actually felt like the cold weather was having more of an impact on me here that at any of my three times running Hellgate (which is a 100K that starts at midnight in December in the mountains of Virginia.) Plus we could hear the aid station well before we got there. I was starting to think my recovery really wasn't there yet, when finally I hit the 30-mile aid station (and the first time I'd see my dad) at Robinson Flat.
|Super crew, always with a fresh pack ready|
I recapped the race so far with my dad while I reclaimed my jacket and gloves and swapped in the new hydration pack. I was just going to have to cut back radically on the water. I hoped I could get this under control. My dad introduced the woman next to him -- I was bib number 287, and she was waiting for number 288, a gentleman from Ireland. He hadn't arrived yet. Funny that the crews for adjacent bibs found each other.
Miller's Defeat, Dusty Corners, Last Chance
In any case, I headed out, with fresh determination to get my race back on track -- but it was a struggle. Though the next section wasn't great, I was cheered up a little when Jack Kurisky blew on by. We've met at a number of races over the years, and it was nice to see another friendly face, even if it was to see it receding into the distance ahead of me. Turns out he's doing the Slam this year, so good luck to you, Jack! But that was about it for the highlights going into Miller's Defeat.
The two sections after that trended noticeably downhill. I was down to maybe 10% of what I'd normally drink, which made gels somewhat unappetizing -- I only barely had enough water to rinse the sludge out of my mouth. But on the up side, the jacket helped, especially when we got another dose of hail more than 30 miles in (if this is weather in the mountains, I thought, Hardrock -- forget you!). We were well past what's normally considered to be the mountain section, yet still in the mountain weather. Not for the first time, I daydreamed about reaching a nice, deep, hot canyon. I distinctly remembered the participant guide discussing 110 degrees in the canyons. I also distinctly remembered dreading it, but now I was about ready to beg for some of that. For sure, I was debating the wisdom of this whole 100 miler thing. Maybe I should stick to lesser ultras until the kids are older? In the mean time, at all these aid stations, people kept asking if they could do something for my knee. I finally looked, and discovered there was blood running all down from my right knee to my ankle. Guess I must have scraped it on the fall. The hip was still bothering me a bit, but I didn't feel a thing from the knee.
After those stops, I was headed for the Last Chance aid station at 43 miles, the next medical check, and where I had my one and only drop bag. I was also starting to think it was about the Last Chance to get my race together. After that, it was the remaining three canyons, featuring the toughest climbs of the day. The good news is, the leg into Last Chance went very well. The rain slowed, and the clouds loosened up a bit. The terrain was a long, gradual downhill, clinging to the side of a mountain. It was a narrow dirt trail, wooded mountain on one side, and you-don't-want-to-fall-off on the other. Though it was about 99% downhill, there was an occasional short bump where the curve of the mountain dictated it. You could look off the side and see how far down we might be going into Deadwood Canyon, and it was a long way. You wonder how the trees cling to the downhill side, where they seem to be growing parallel to the surface. You also wonder how this trail was created in the first place. Then you just spend a moment in thanks that it keeps on with the gentle downhill and you keep running well.
By the time I hit the Last Chance weigh-in, I was down a couple pounds, so I was making progress. It was not pleasant, but it was working. On the down side, my hands were still swollen, so it was clear I wasn't done yet. Still, I had done 10-minute miles for the last 5 or more miles, so my race wasn't over yet. At the worst, I had entertained thoughts of dropping as soon as it became clear that I couldn't make 24 hours -- I mean, why come out and kill myself and not even go home with the silver buckle? But that must have been on the uphills, and I was in a happier place now. A helpful volunteer provided my drop bag before I could think to ask, so I swapped in the new gels that would need to last me to the next crew station at Michigan Bluff (13 miles on).
We headed out to some more improvement in the weather. One of the volunteers had said "Well at least it's sunny at Foresthill," and it was finally seeming like that might be possible, as we got occasional glimpses of sunlight. It still wasn't warm, and as we headed down into Deadwood Canyon, I wasn't uncomfortable in a jacket over shirt and arm sleeves -- a far cry from a hundred and ten degrees. This descent wasn't as smooth -- it was rockier, with lots of switchbacks, but I held my place in the line of runners heading down. Even picked up a place as someone stopped to answer the call of nature. We got to the bottom faster than I expected, only then of course it wasn't the bottom, just a little bump in the road before we continued on down. Finally we hit the little waterfall I remembered, and began the brutal climb up Devil's Thumb.
Though actually, as I was to discover, it was the brutal climb up to Devil's Thumb. You see, I had thought this climb was called Devil's Thumb because it's so straight up it's like you're actually climbing a thumb for miles and miles. But in fact, that much is just incidental -- there's actually a rock formation near the top that looks sort of like a little thumb sticking out of the ground. But it's like a 15-foot thumb, not the 2-mile one I had in my mind. All right, I don't care what they say, I'm calling the whole thing Devil's Thumb because of the way that entire climb sticks up from the bottom of the canyon.
All this trivia was courtesy of the unnamed runner behind me. As we started up from the bottom, I told him to go ahead and pass because I was going to take it easy on the climb. I remembered pushing myself to power hike the climb last time, and being absolutely wasted at the top, sort of wavering as they put me on the scale at the medical check. I thought this year I would go easier on the climb and feel better at the top. Apparently this other guy was of the same opinion, because he never passed the entire time. He said "it seems steeper this time..." and it turns out that he trains there pretty regularly. That must help with the race prep!
He didn't have any landmarks to contribute, though, other than the thumb at the top, so I fell back on counting switchbacks. I remembered the race sketch noting 39 switchbacks (actually, 36, but who's counting?), so I tried to track them. Unfortunately I didn't have this idea until a few had passed already, and it also wasn't exactly clear what was a switchback and what was just a milder turn as the trail clung to the contour of the mountain, so my count was sort of approximate. But at least it gave me some sense of our progress, and some reason to cheer when we hit 20, 30, and etc. Meanwhile, I was definitely feeling thirsty. That seemed like a good sign -- I took it to mean I must have gotten my weight under control, because how could I be thirsty if I was still overstuffed with water? I tried not to go crazy, but I did have just the slightest bit of extra water at the halfway point.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour of climbing, we saw the thumb, just as we pulled into the 48-mile aid station at the top. And surprise, surprise, I didn't feel any better than last time. Grrr. I did do better in standing steady for the weight check, and finally, I was down to within a pound of my starting weight. Huzzah! I thought that was worth a reward. I thought I might sit for a few minutes, but a volunteer said "don't do that for long, you'll get too cold!" Indeed, the station was in the shade, and it couldn't have been more than a minute before the chill was setting in and I had to get up and go. I staggered down the trail for maybe 10 minutes before I found a nice big log in the sun, and camped out there instead. I just needed the rest. The sun occasionally departed behind a cloud, but returned quickly enough. I got a bit of recovery, and left somewhat refreshed. It was certainly easier to get back up to a jog after a nice rest!
El Dorado Creek, Michigan Bluff
The trail went right downhill from the time I got moving again, and off we went into El Dorado Canyon. I had forgotten that there really wasn't much in between, and I tried to move well on the long, steep downhill, but it wasn't my finest. Again, I was in my jacket, and not at all uncomfortable as we headed down into it. I caught up to and passed some of the folks that had passed me on the log, so just because they were still moving didn't necessarily mean they were in that much better shape! But I still could tell I was just falling farther and farther behind the pace I had meant to keep, and what I had blown off as an easy goal coming in, was not looking very much like that at all.
After another long descent, we hit the El Dorado Creek aid station at the bottom. It was in the sun, and just a little bit warmer. As I came up a volunteer said "Can I help you take that jacket off?" Sure. The bucket of water with sponges was there again, and I scooped some water up in my hat to keep cool on the climb. It felt nice at the moment. But after the brief pause to hydrate, I left for the ascent, and guess what? The second the trail headed up we went into the shade, and I was cold again. Cold enough that I wanted the jacket back on, though I wasn't about to stop to do it. Aargh.
I met a few folks on the way up. One was another Pennsylvanian, and when I mentioned that I had done some of the Ron Horn races, he said "I work for him full time!" I think it was Mike? We chatted a bit. It was another one of those climbs where I kept my own hiking pace, not wanting to hurt myself by going too hard. I could feel someone just behind me, but he never passed. The folks ahead of me would jog all the milder bits, but I didn't bother -- and I'd always catch up when it turned uphill again. Didn't seem worth it to push to a jog only to lose it all with a slower hike in between. And then, right as I was wondering just exactly how much longer there could be, I heard a distinct Irish accent behind me announce "quarter mile to go!"
|Photo credit: Jeffrey Genova|
Disgustingly, I was up a bit again at the weigh-in. From 48 to 56 miles, I hadn't managed to keep my weight down. Grrr. Still, it wasn't much, and it was probably all in the fingers. I mean, my hands were swollen, my fingers were like sausages, and I couldn't make tight fists. Why that persisted when my weight was under control wasn't exactly clear. When I mentioned it at the weigh-in, they sent me and my dad over to one of the medics to discuss. He tended to blow it off ("everyone swells a bit over 100 miles... swelling takes a while to go down..."), but I didn't think it was right. My theory was too much salt. When I had had cramp problems, and when my weight was up and I was trying to get it to drain, I had taken extra salt. Now I had cut back a lot, but I was still getting a pretty decent amount in my gels (200mg each), and I take a lot of gels. So we checked the race-issued gels (55mg) and I decided to switch to those for a while and see if cutting back on the salt could help with the swelling. My dad had given me a fresh pack with gels for the section to the next crew station at Foresthill, but there was still enough room to fit in a handful of the race gels.
One the way out, my dad mentioned that he was worried about getting back to Foresthill in time, because there were only shuttles and they ran every half hour. I assured him there was plenty of time, at my pace and with one more canyon to go, I'd be lucky to make it from 56 miles to 62 in 90 minutes. He didn't seem to believe me, but I wasn't worried. I also told him to tell Clare she'd have her work cut out for her, as I was well off pace. As I headed down the road, one of the nearby houses was blaring race music, which was nice. Then we passed two of the periodic "filming zone, please run single file" sections. That was weird, because there were always a couple people sitting there, but never apparent cameras. At one, I thought there might have been a tiny videoconferencing-type camera on a tripod on the ground, but I didn't see how it would get anything but shoes. So I have no idea what they were filming. Maybe a footwear survey.
Anyway, it took a while to get to Volcano Canyon. The road turned uphill next to a race sign saying "WS100: To Volcano Canyon". I thought sure, we could go uphill for a block or two before we start down into the canyon. Um, no. It seemed like a mile or more, with me thinking every turn must be into the canyon, and that not being true. Swollen as I was, my watch was pretty tight, and for some reason I decided to take it off. It resisted, and then the strap broke. Smooth move. I knew it had been broken partway through, and I had been nursing it for weeks to get through the race, yet I tried to force it anyway. Sometimes you wonder where your head is. So I ended up carrying it in my hand for the rest of the race.
Finally we reached the lip, and headed down into the canyon. It didn't seem as deep or as steep as the previous canyons, though after everything we had done already, it still wasn't a piece of cake. As usual, the descent was OK, but the climb out was slow. At last, we hit the small aid station at the top, just over a mile before the larger Foresthill aid station. From there we had to run through town to the biggest aid station on the course, at 62 miles, or about 100K. I was inclined to walk it, but the guy ahead of me was running at a pretty steady pace, so I picked it up and followed. In the end, I rolled in just past 14 hours.
|The massive Foresthill aid station|
But back in the present, I met my family first -- Erin and my mom and the kids had come out, plus my dad was there as usual. Caelan ran up to claim a sweaty hug, and I waved and smiled at everyone else as I headed on into the station. At my weigh-in I was about 173.5, which still wasn't great, but at least wasn't as bad as I had been early on. For some odd reason my dad (crew) and Clare (pacer) weren't both allowed to go with me through the station, so Clare said she'd meet me on the far side. The one wrinkle came when I put on my new pack. My dad had been worried enough about the timing with the shuttle, that he hadn't gone back to his car to get the Foresthill supply bag with my lights. It would get dark before I'd see him again, so I needed lights.
At this point, my dad and one of the volunteers started trying to figure out whether the course passed where he parked or not. I grabbed the backup headlamp from my bag (actually, I think there were four more in there -- I've won two as door prizes, upgraded my main one once, and there's the tiny one I just use if the first hour of a race is in the dark. Am I an ultrarunner or what?!?). "Look, I have this one I can use. The batteries aren't fresh, but worst case it'll get me by until you see me again. Now go back to the car and get the good lights, and we'll walk out of here, and if we see you we see you and if we don't I'll get the other lights at Green Gate." I traded for a warmer shirt and hat and sent him for the car. I got a few of the race gels from the table, and headed out to meet Clare. I had planned to walk out of Foresthill anyway, as I could use the break, and it was only a couple blocks before we hit the trail again. Clare must have caught some of the headlamp discussion, because she said we'd be passing right by her van and there was an extra light in there too. At first I said it didn't matter, then I thought maybe it wasn't such a bad idea in case the batteries in mine were older than I thought. But then my dad showed up with the fresh light in hand, and it was all moot.
Dardanelles (Cal 1)
Clare's initial advice was passed down from Tim Twietmeyer (WS100 winner and veteran): now's the time to push yourself. Lay down some miles while the sun's still up, because once it gets dark, you'll slow down whether you like it or not. I could see the wisdom in that plan, so I started upping the pace. Heading down from Foresthill, I felt like we were doing 10 minute miles or so, better than I had seen in hours. Clare had the aid station sheet and we reviewed the next few stations -- it went short, long, short, long until the river. I asked Clare to run in front of me on the single-track, following the trail markings, and to keep an eye on the 24-hour split times posted at the aid stations. Someone blew past even faster while we were heading down, but by and large, we seemed to be holding our own or even catching people, which was great!
The bad news came when we got to "Cal 1", the first station after Foresthill. Other that the walk at the beginning we had made super time, and we were in and out by 14:55. But the 24-hour pace said 7:30 PM, or 14:30. We were 25 minutes behind. That was a lot more than I thought! And while I felt I was running hard enough to have made up 10 minutes, if anything, I was worse! Well, I didn't know what the official 24-hour split for Foresthill was -- I had come up with 14 hours by looking at other finishers -- so I wasn't really sure how much we had gained or lost. (In truth, we had left Foresthill 20 minutes behind, and I figure we lost 5 minutes in the walk out.) In any case, it was definitely worse than I had expected, plus I was down to 34 miles remaining to make it up, so it looked like I really had my work cut out for me after all. She noted the 25 and we headed out.
Peachstone (Cal 2), Ford's Bar (Cal 3)
I ran the next section extra-hard, uphills and down. I mean, I could tell I was going too fast -- my stomach was backing up a bit, and it just didn't feel sustainable. But it was already at and then past the official sunset, and while there was still light for the moment, I didn't think we had much more left. It wasn't all downhill like the previous section, but it was still runnable. Eventually, 4 miles in or a bit more, I called a walk break -- I just had to back off a bit to something I could keep up. Clare pointed out that we were just short of 70 miles, and just reaching 16 hours. In other words, I had 8 hours left for a 50K. Very doable. When we got moving again, it was still good, but not quite as fast. Even so, when we hit Cal 2, I was waiting to see 15 minutes behind, or maybe 10. I had to do a med check, and they asked about my knee again, as they had been at every station since mile 30. I said "really, that was like 50 miles ago! It's the least of my worries." We did the whole station -- weigh-in, some gels, fruit, and ginger ale to help my stomach -- and headed out the other side when we saw the sign. We were 22 minutes behind.
OK, I suppose that was some improvement, but damn! I was running really hard and I made up THREE minutes? That sucked! How was I going to make up another TWENTY-TWO like that?!? Clare made some remark about progress, but I could tell she was thinking the same thing. Actually, I think she said that the way we were going to make up more time was to keep jogging the uphills instead of walking them, and I was glad I had been able to do it in that section, but it wasn't like it had gotten us much time thus far.
We were into nighttime now, and into one of the short-but-hard sections. I was coughing up some ugly phlegm, which I figured was from dust on the trails -- it had been dry all day in this area, and you could see the dust in the air, sparkling in the lights. Breathing aside, we climbed for a while, then came back down to a T intersection. The weird thing was, I could clearly see the lights of the aid station just down and to the left, but the glow sticks led us to the right and back up. For a moment I thought we'd just loop around and down to the station. But it was soon clear that we were going in another direction entirely. I was really worried about this, but we kept seeing glow sticks so I tried to keep it to myself. We passed another pair of runners, and I was strongly tempted to ask them whether they had been to Cal 3 yet -- I mean, I didn't remember any little out-and-back sections, but could there have been one we missed? I didn't ask and we put another notch in the mental passed-a-runner belt. Clare said later that one of the runners we passed in this section (I think the one who said "sucks!" when asked how she was doing) was top 10 last year. I guess I wasn't the only one having a rougher-than-average day.
The aid station dilemma was all solved when we rolled into Ford's Bar (Cal 3, and 73 miles) a little while later, nowhere near that intersection. That much was a relief (though -- what did I see?!?). On the other hand, with the uphills in that section, we had made up zero time -- still 22 minutes "in the bad direction." That was not so good. 40 minutes to go what was posted as 2.3 miles, and we used it all. Oh, boy. Clare confessed later that she was pretty worried at this point. I was grumpy because I felt like I was doing better than a 25-hour pace, but my progress wasn't reflecting it. Well, on to the river. The volunteer said it was 4.5 miles, though the sign clearly said 5. As we got into it, Clare asked how my hands were doing, and I was pleased to report they seemed a lot better. I couldn't see them with the gloves on, but I could easily make a fist, so it seemed that the sweating and reduced salt was working. Finally. It only took like 75 miles to get my body back in order.
Rucky Chucky, Green Gate
From last year, I thought I remembered a long stretch where we ran down at river level, before heading up and away and then back down to the crossing. If so, I must have missed it in the dark, because from Cal 3 we headed straight up and then meandered up and down and over toward the river crossing. Much of it was on a fire road, and I didn't like the uphills that much, but I passed more folks. Then it headed down, and a little sooner than we expected, we hit the river crossing! Clare allowed as the volunteer may have been right... (It's OK, I figure the one before that must have been longer than 2.3.) There was a med check at the near-side aid station (78 miles) and I weighed in about the same. The good news was, Clare and the volunteer established that we were only 10 minutes off the 24-hour pace. Progress, at last! We were both super-excited to hear that. The volunteer knew exactly what we were thinking, and he said "Go on, get out of here, don't waste any time!" I stuffed my hand light and watch into my pack so I'd have my hands free. We left 11 minutes behind, but we must have done the crossing OK because we were back to 10 on the other side.
The crossing itself was quite an experience. From the near side aid station, you picked a rocky path down and back up and back down, guided by strips of lights. Then there it was -- a group of volunteers next to the tied-down end of a long rope, and what looked to be a very cold river. Claire and I had been increasingly nervous about the cold of the crossing as we approached -- if I get into shivering fits and can ruin a race right there. We had agreed to do everything on the near side so that as soon as we crossed we could attack the uphill on the far side -- not that a steep 2-mile climb was all that attractive, but it would warm us up. At least the river started shallow...
I had been expecting a 10-minute lecture with detailed instructions and whatever. Instead we got more of a hello, get going! So Clare leaned over, grabbed the rope, and headed into the water, and I followed. It wasn't so bad at ankle-deep -- there was just enough light to make out the rope and the volunteers standing in the river and holding it in place. (With some kind of suits keeping them warm and dry -- what I wouldn't have given for one of those!) By knee-deep it was cold, then darn cold. There were glow sticks underwater, highlighting the bigger rocks that we had to navigate as we went. I had a death grip on the rope, and I was starting to shiver. By the time we got to waist deep, I was involuntarily moaning at the cold. Some of the volunteers seemed to think I was making a joke, while I was wondering if there was an ambulance with a heat pump on the far side. I had rolled up my jacket but the bottom still got wet, so perhaps a little over waist-deep at the peak, but definitely not chest-deep. It was enough. Clare led the way and I scooted as fast as I could to get out the far side. Eventually she let go of the rope and walked out, and I bent over and held on perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary, before hurrying out of the water and up the bank.
A volunteer on the far side asked what he could get us, and I said nothing we're freezing and heading right up that hill! We started the hike and it wasn't going all that well, either in terms of speed or warmth. Clare suggested we jog. "Really? Because last time we were jogging and you told me I might as well walk because it would be as fast." "You're doing better this year." I suppose I was, because we jogged nearly the whole thing, and by the top, we had picked up another 5 minutes. Yes! Along the way, Clare had also swapped out the batteries in my hand light, which had been dimming. I had used the better of two sets of batteries, but apparently that wasn't the same as buying new! We had initially thought to change them out at the aid station, but now we begrudged every extra minute standing still, so she did it on the move.
My dad was at the Green Gate station at the top (80 miles), with a fresh pack waiting. I gave him the old one, having hardly used any of it, I was working so hard at drinking less and using race gels. Still, it was very nice to be guaranteed equipped. Some of the aid stations only had oddball-flavored gels, and it was always safer to have my own supply if needed. And with a full pack, I never needed to wait for it to be filled at a station. All good. I quickly sucked down a little fruit at the table and headed out, only 5 minutes off pace!
Auburn Lake Trails, Brown's Bar
|I look for gels and fruit... They just need sticks and dirt|
The next worrisome bit was when suddenly my balance felt a little off, just as we were on a narrow section of trail. Not what I wanted. I took stock and felt a little woozy. I called a break, and slurped down a gel and an S-cap. I hoped either the calories or salt would fix me up. Shortly after, another gel, and another. I decided it was calories I needed, and it seemed to work. The last thing I wanted was to come into Auburn Lake Trails, 85 miles and the scene of my 2010 enforced siesta, not feeling 100%.
In this section and the next, there were several scenarios that played out something like this in my head. "Oh good, an uphill, we can walk." "Shit, she's not walking." "OK, maybe I can jog just a little more." "Maybe that's the top. Is that the top?" "Didn't she say this was 'rolling'? Doesn't that mean there's a down part too? It's still up!" "Oh good, steeper part, we can walk." "Shit, she's not walking..." And so on. We pushed and I grumbled about rolling inside my head, but overall I thought I was moving pretty well. And then we heard Auburn Lake Trails ahead. I couldn't decide whether to slurp down one more gel for calories, or hold off for lower weight. I think I took the gel.
Into the station, into the medical check, and surprise, surprise, my weight was 2 pounds up. Pretty much the same as since Foresthill, as I told the guy. I said I had been trying to cut back on the water, but I was having trouble actually getting my weight down. He seemed happy to talk about it, and asked if I had been peeing much. "Yes!" (um, stretching the truth perhaps, as it had been pretty occasional -- though I felt like I was able to pee when needed -- I just hadn't needed to with the reduced intake...). I went for the redirect. "What I'd really like is some real food," and I gestured to the table behind him. (Stretching again, as all I really wanted was some fruit like watermelon or grapes which was probably not what he was thinking when I was talking about less water and more real food.) He was agreeable and I took the opportunity to escape to the table and scoop up some fruit. They had wacky gels again, but someone Clare knew was there and grabbed a few more ordinary ones from her car. Thanks!!
We were soon out, and get this -- 4 minutes AHEAD of 24-hour pace! Yeeeesss! For the first time since about Miller's Defeat at 35 miles, I was back on pace! But cold again -- I was shivering out of the station. I had to push to move enough to generate some heat!
Despite the improvement in our time, I was nervous. One cramp or missing one turn and 4 minutes wasn't going to be much buffer. I wanted a little more. The trail to Brown's Bar was one of those "rolling" ones, where Clare said "rolling" and the terrain said "maybe a little flat but mostly uphill". Still, I pushed to keep jogging as much as I could. A little bit of trivia. Supposedly through last year, this station was run by the Hash House Harriers. But for some reason I didn't quite catch, they were "fired." It wasn't on account of the loud music, because that was back, so something else. Apparently Hal Koerner's running club was invited in to take over. I dunno, it didn't seem much different to me. We heard it well before we got there, even saw it and still had to circle around. I had passed a couple folks but they hung close behind with the blaring music leading us in. As before, I had to hike the last ten yards which were a steep climb into the station. (The volunteer there alerted us to take care on the last step -- meanwhile I nearly fell flat on the second to last.) Everyone in there was great and they got me in and fed and out quickly. So if the station was under new management, it worked just fine for me! Best of all, on leaving, we were down to 10 miles left and the buffer was up to 10 minutes! But I was cold again -- when would that stop?!?
At this point there were 4 short legs left in the race. A few miles to the Highway 49 crossing. A few miles from there to No Hands Bridge, where we re-crossed the river but staying a lot drier this time. A few miles of climb up to Auburn. And then a mile and change to the finish line. I remembered the bit from here to Highway 49 -- something, something, then a short and nasty, rocky climb, then a long switchbacking downhill to the crossing. We went straight down out of the station, too steep to take at any decent speed, and then hit a long uphill on another fire road. Clare said that we followed that road until the turn-off for the big climb next to the quarry. I hadn't remembered the climb before the climb, and I thought I was suffering a little, even as we jogged past people who were walking it. But then her Garmin beeped to tell us that we had just done a 13-minute mile: fantastic for a climbing section at that point in the race, when I only needed to average 15s or so. We were going to pick up still more time here!
After a lot longer than I expected, Clare said the turn-off was coming, because she recognized where they put the aid station for the training run. She was right. I headed up the rocky climb, and I was making terrible time. Someone blew past, how I'm not quite sure, and I heard someone else approach from behind. I asked if they wanted to pass, and got back "no, you're doing just fine." Clare pointed out that I had still been walking at this point last time -- it took a real long time after laying down for 3 hours before I could jog again! It was nice to remember how much better I was doing at this point in the race, even if I had lost time earlier. I didn't look but Clare also said we were convoying up the hill with 6 or 8 headlamps! That made me a little grumpy because I thought I passed all those people while they were walking, but either they walk a lot faster than me or they started running when I passed. Aargh.
I was counting down the minutes, budgeting 20 minutes for the climb and 20 for the descent back to the road. Then 25 and 15. When it was more like 30 and 10, and I was thinking this was less and less realistic, Clare said "and that about does it for this climb, now we get to some nice single-track." I was thinking of single-track heading down, but I was quickly disabused of that notion -- it was up, up, up. This was a mental failure for me -- I started to jog, then as it kept going up, fell back to a walk in disgust. Again tried to jog, and again fell back. I was convinced at this point that we had lost our whole buffer, despite the early 13-minute mile. I was picking up space from the convoy behind me somehow, but going slower than I could have because I was still waiting for a downhill that never materialized! Even when I saw highway lights ahead, I thought we must circle way around to run down as far as I remembered before we got there.
In fact, it was about a 30-second descent and then someone was asking my bib and hometown and they were calling my name over the loudspeaker. We crossed the road in the middle of a ton of shining lights, and there was my dad on the far side. For all my calculating, we got in and out and picked up maybe a minute to add to our buffer. But let me back up a bit for the other point of view.
My dad was waiting there for a while -- it had been over 3.5 hours since Green Gate, and these were stations that weren't terribly far apart by road (even though there was another shuttle involved). He was cold from all the standing around in the dark -- even if it hadn't been so cold outside, his initial cold-weather outfit had been soaked by the early rain, and he was in the backups without any additional layers available. He got so cold that he actually asked the volunteers if he could cross to the far side of the highway and stand under the big white (highway-construction-type) lights in case it was warmer. One of the volunteers took pity on him, sat him down in a chair, and wrapped him in a warm blanket. He had about enough time to sigh, and then they called "Aaron... Mulder... from Pennsyl... vania!" And he had to pop right up again.
But to me, it just looked like he was ready and waiting. He had the pack ready to go, so as soon as I weighed in (maybe back to a pound up) we swapped packs and I crammed in some race gels, grabbed some fruit, and was out as quickly as I could. I apologized to him but noted we didn't want to lose any time. And again, I was shivering like crazy. It was a climb out of the station that I couldn't run, and the hiking wasn't warming me up! Finally it occurred to me -- it was the fruit! At every one of these stations about all I ate was the fruit -- watermelon and maybe strawberries or grapes. It was all cold! Putting cold in my belly in the cold air and wet clothes and standing still for a minute or two -- no wonder I was cold leaving every station! I swore out loud that I would not eat any fruit at No Hands Bridge! I had had enough of that shivering!
No Hands Bridge, Robie Point
I was eventually able to warm up and jog the more reasonable bits, thankfully. After a mile or a bit more the climb topped out, and we started the trail down to the bridge. This was the dirt, switchbacky trail that I had remembered. I was pretty disoriented -- I'd hear traffic from what I thought was mountain, see bridge where I thought there was air, hear water where I thought there was land, nothing was making any sense. I finally gave up and decided I was just going to follow the trail, and when we got there, we got there. Clare pointed out a bridge she had told me about the last time, and I couldn't even see it. Of course, then we saw the lights and the station at No Hands Bridge well before we actually got there -- you had to pass it and switchback down and around from the other way -- but soon enough we were there. I just blew on through, not needing anything additional at 97 miles nor wanting to take the time to stop. Clare made a brief stop and then caught up to me while I was still on the bridge. I had seen the time sign, though -- I was now 18 minutes ahead! They budgeted 50 minutes for a 24-hour finisher to make it in from the bridge. I called that 40 minutes of climb to Auburn, and 10 minutes to the line. Then adjusted as it was more like a mile and a third and I really wasn't going super-fast. 35 minutes climb and 15 minutes across town. I had still forgotten how the first half-mile of pavement is still a climb! In truth, they call it 30 minutes climb and 20 minutes across town.
In any case, I was determined to run as much as I could. Clare joked that I could walk it in from here, but given my hiking speed, I was not at all convinced that was true. Plus, there was the small matter of Euihwa, and his 23:54 finish in 2007 -- the course record for our running club. It didn't look like my day to shatter it, but I at least wanted to chip a few minutes off. So we ran. The first half of the climb was runnable, but then Clare pointed out the lights of Robie Point, where you cross into town. It was very, very high above us. If we kept going up at the rate we were going, it was going to be a lot more miles than were left! Of course, Clare pointed out that we were about to head onto some steep single-track. That part was not runnable, though I hiked at what felt like a better pace than I had a right to expect. Finally, we hit the fire road at the top, still pretty steep, if not so much as the trail. She started to run, and I said "are you serious?" I must have sounded pretty incredulous, because we walked the remaining few minutes to Robie Point.
Placer High School
They cheered us in (37 minutes after the bridge) but I headed right out again, eager to be at the track. Clare reminded me that the first half-mile was still uphill, and mentioned that there was a party after that. She said they replaced a street sign and the new one said "99 miles!" and there was a permanent party there, or something. But she said no matter how good it looked, I wasn't allowed to stop. No worries on that score! Still, this didn't make any sense to me. With the geometry, I figured Robie Point itself must have been just about 99 miles. Even if it meant "1 mile to go" then it should have been only 0.2 miles further, and it seemed well more than that. So the sign seemed more symbolic than accurate, though I didn't complain out loud. Instead I slogged up the hill for a while and finally made it up to a jog, shortly before the 99 mile party. (It was brightly lit and there were a lot of people, but I confess, I hardly spared them a glance.)
We were well into town, now, just following the red footsteps painted on the asphalt. But it was still uphill. Clare had said something about how it was a little up after Robie Point, then flat until the little bump over the train tracks, then downhill to the finish. I felt like the reality was uphill from No Hands Bridge to the train tracks, then whatever for the last quarter mile. But it would have been rude to complain at this point, after she had pulled me through 38 miles, and helped me pick up more than 30 minutes since Foresthill.
Clare and Erin and the kids and my parents all gathered around me, and I'm afraid I distributed some awfully stinky hugs before the volunteers called me over to weigh in one last time (a pound up) and relieve me of the ankle-strap timing chip. Then I found a chair. One of the volunteers helped me out a lot in that whole finish process, and I found out later it was Stan Jensen, organizer of the Grand Slam. So we knew each other's names and finally had faces to go with them. They asked me whether I wanted blood drawn for a research study, and I said sure -- perhaps mainly because they were kicking me out of the chair right at the finish line, and there was another chair over where the blood work was being done. (Someone has since put forth the argument that an ultrarunner at the end of a 100-miler is in no position to give informed consent, but hey, I'm sure it's good research! :) So I got my blood drawn and got a little more chair time.
At that point, I was cold and tired and sore and ready to leave. We had to decide whether to hang out for the awards ceremony (7 hours later) or go back to our hotel in Squaw Valley (perhaps 90 minutes away). To me, this was no contest. I wanted some heat and a shower and a bed. I had someone ask about my buckle, but apparently they weren't on-site yet, so having missed the awards, I have no physical proof and I need to get it mailed. But hey, I know I earned the Silver Buckle even if I can't show it yet. Maybe if I do this again we'll plan to stay longer in Auburn. (Or maybe I'll finish sooner and we'll get enough sleep to come back!)
As for the race, that was about it. With a little help from Clare and my dad (OK, a lot of help), I fought back from 25 minutes down to buckle, though it took most of 10 hours to get there. Big thanks to them, to Erin and my mom for bringing the kids to Foresthill and the finish, to Stan for getting me through the finish line process and over to the car, and to all the volunteers on the course from the aid stations to the river crossing to the photographers to the 99 mile party that I didn't take full advantage of and all.
Still, I'm not sure I'll be back soon. I've redeemed myself and earned all the "100 Miles One Day" loot, and it's a lot of time and effort to cross the whole country with the family (holy mackerel getting through the airport with those car seats!). I think I'd only do it again if I was really convinced I'd do well, probably once I'm able to train more consistently. Clare can have my tickets for a while. But it was a beautiful course, and some day, I need to try a non-snow non-freezing year.
P.S. All those negative thoughts -- they must have been on the uphills. I'm already wondering whether I could sleaze into Vermont. :)