Thursday, July 7, 2011

Western States 2011

My first Western States in 2009 really shook me up. It made me question my ability at the 100 mile distance and even my relationship with ultra-running in general. I’m not going to take anything for granted, but 2011 Western States was an amazing journey and has slayed just about all of those past demons. However this race didn’t feel like some sort of “triumph over adversity” but was more an expression of my enjoyment of running. My best races always are rooted in joy, and this was probably one of my best.

Western States is a big deal in the ultra-running community and of the utmost importance among my training partners. Because of my adventures in 2009, this race had even more significance to me. However, I was strangely calm in the days leading up to the “big dance”.

We arrived in Squaw on Thursday before race day and caught up with a few friends before heading over to the Montrail dinner. Friday was an easy three-mile run with friends, crews and pacers and at the medical check after, I weighed in at 136.6 pounds—about average for the past few months. Dave Mackey, volunteering at the check in, measured my heart rate at 48 beats per minute. He informed me this was the low for the day—another indicator of my strangely calm pre-race demeanor. My goals going into the race were: · Finish on the track in Auburn and not the hospital · Arrive in Forest Hill in good shape and finish in under 24 hours · Hold 2nd place in the Montrail Ultra-cup · Enjoy the experience and run my own race

Except for the Montrail cup, these were fairly low key and mundane goals. I didn’t care—2009 really, really, really sucked and I was not going to let that happen again. I was genuinely looking forward to an awesome day on the trails and not much more. At 5:00 am on Saturday, June 25, we were off! I used a mix of fast hiking and mostly slow running to climb the Escarpment. Every now and then I glanced up the hill to see the race developing. Folks were grouped tightly and proceeded at a surprisingly reasonable pace for the start of a 100-mile race. Maybe this wouldn’t be the hammer fest it was in 2009.

At the Escarpment I topped off my bottle, and grabbed two PB&J quarters. Shortly after the PB&J I worked my way through a Cliff bar. The next aid station was approximately 12 miles away and the snow conditions were proving to be a real test of my foot work—technical running is always more taxing than I realize. Visions of gentle plunging, stepping and sliding down the far side were not to be. Skinned knees, bruised hands, lost water bottles, and dropped GU’s were all a testament to the difficulty of the icy terrain which included large tree wells, subsurface rivers, and hidden logs.

The Talbot Aid Station was a welcome sight after our cross-country trek. I topped off my bottles, grabbed some Coke, helped myself to a hot ham and cheese sandwich and headed out. The snow tapered off and soon we were running on gravel roads. I had promised myself I wouldn’t run too fast to make up time, but I felt strong and comfortable and in elite company, running with Glen Redpath (M7, 2010). I just hoped we weren’t overdoing it.

The next aid station was Poppy, mile 20.0 at French Meadows Reservoir. Another sandwich, more Coke and a banana chunk—the food theme for the day. From Poppy to the next aid station at Duncan Canyon, mile 23.5, we were at last on a single track, weaving in and out along the reservoir. I lost a little momentum in this area. At first I slowed just enough to get the sandwich down, but the easier pace persisted for awhile— I was still concerned I’d hit the roads too hard earlier and several runners passed me. As the trail pulled away from the reservoir and we started climbing up to Duncan Canyon, the sun shone down in earnest and I donned my sunglasses.

At Duncan Canyon, mile 23.5, it was exciting to know we were, at least momentarily, on the traditional route. Normally we would have headed north out to Robinson Flat, but due to snow we proceeded down into canyon and then climbed back up to the Mosquito Ridge aid station. At the aid station it was more Coke and another PB&J. I lost AJW and Glen on the descent, but caught them on the climb to Mosquito Ridge, despite fighting some cramping. Mosquito Ridge, at mile 31, was the first weigh-in; I was down 4 pounds from the start. Seeing this, plus feeling the cramps, confirmed I needed to increase my sodium intake. I grabbed more Coke, and… more ham and cheese this time in a wrap! Miller’s Defeat was the next stop and we would be back on the original course. Heading out onto the normal course was incredibly comforting: I knew what to expect and how to run the rest of the race.

Intermittent snow peppered our route to Miller’s Defeat. Pucker Point Trail led us to Dusty Corners at mile 38 with some beautiful views of the forks of the American River. More dirt roads found us at mile 43 and the Last Chance aid station. At this point, the front group was fairly spread out and this was really the start of running alone for the next 50+ miles. I needed to forget about the race, find my groove, and prepare for the canyons.

From Last Chance, we began the first major descent to the swinging bridge. I repeated a mantra Craig had given me at camp: “Preserve the vessel!” The descent went well and my quads felt strong. I was greeted at the bridge—also the start of the Devils Thumb climb—by Scott Dunlap in a devil costume. I gave him a hearty “Arrgh!” I suppose that’s really more of a pirate yell, but I’m not sure what a devil sounds like. I speed hiked almost the entire Devil’s Thumb climb. Near the top, Graham Cooper and another international runner passed me.

At the Devils Thumb aid station I weighed in at 140 pounds. Cramping was no longer a problem and since my weight was up, I decided to back off of the sodium. I had another good “preserving the vessel” descent into the El Dorado canyon and a solid climb back up to Michigan Bluff. This time I did quite a bit more running as the climb up to Michigan Buff is longer but much less steep than the Devil’s Thumb climb. By this time the day had warmed up and while it wasn’t super-hot, I was taking care to douse myself at the creek crossings.

I arrived in Michigan Bluff around 2:00 pm, which was about an hour faster than 2009, and much faster than I expected to arrive this year. More importantly, I was feeling good. Courtney greeted me and after the weigh-in—136 pounds and back on track—guided me over to where the Sunsweet folks were camped out. I picked up new bottles, an ice-filled handkerchief, and a turkey-avocado sandwich. John Ticer walked out with me while I finished my sandwich. The Volcano canyon section went well and I ran up nearly all of Bath Road.

I arrived into Forest Hill at mile 62 in 13th place. I felt great, my weight was good, and I was looking forward to some solid running along the 18-mile Cal Street section, unlike in 2009 when I dreaded the downhill at this point. I was also an hour ahead of what I thought was possible. In all, I was still enjoying the whole experience and was actually glad it wasn’t going to end too soon.

The station passed in a blur—my parents were present volunteering, I met my pacer John Coulliard, and we ran along, buoyed by the energy of friends, spectators and volunteers. I felt very comfortable at a quick pace, soon caught two other runners, and then passed Hal sitting on the elevator shaft with blown-out quads. This put me into 10th place. I lost a little momentum at the river bottom but I arrived at the boat crossing at mile 78 still feeling good. At the crossing, I picked up Joe Palubeski who would pace me into the finish. I ate some fruit, but I was mostly done with solid foods, grateful for a small bottle of chocolate milk Courtney offered. She informed me AJW was not far ahead and that I was reeling in some of the other front runners.

Joe and I had a good hike and run up to Green Gate, mile 80, and I was once again eager to roll the flat trails through ALT to Brown’s Bar at mile 90. My pace on these flat sections was really good and felt comfortable, but it was taking less and less of a hill to give me an excuse to walk. I was ready to be done. At about 15 miles to go I really started my count down. I arrived at Highway 49, mile 93.5, still in 10th place with daylight to spare. Highway 49 had special significance—it’s where I dropped in 2009 and took an ambulance ride to the Auburn hospital. I was pretty tired, but I was running an amazing time and would definitely be finishing the race. I was so happy with how the race had gone I found it really hard to push through the fatigue and stay competitive.

On the decent down to No-Hands Bridge, I slowed to put on my head lamp. As I fumbled with the straps, Ian Sharman and his pacer flew past me. I knew part of that was for show—that’s how you pass people late in a race—but I knew there was no way I was going to stay with him. I was out of the top ten, but considering how well the day had gone, I found it difficult to stay disappointed. I had a fairly slow section from Highway 49 to the track, but I got it done and had a nice kick into the finish.

During my training runs, I often thought about the last mile from Robie Point to the finish, expecting the final minutes of the race to be overwhelming, emotional, joyful and bittersweet. I pictured hugs and tears and perhaps even an elated collapse. But, at that point, every part of my race came together—hydration, nutrition, pacing—and I found myself focused on just getting the job done, pushing myself to the final steps on the track. Western States was not some obstacle to triumph over, but an amazing day of running that I had experienced to the fullest.

In the end, I met all my goals and exceeded even my best expectations. I really couldn’t be any happier and I would probably count Western States 2011 as one of the best races of my life. Thank you to all my friends and family for your support and confidence. Most of all, thank you to my training partners who make this sport so much fun.